Choosing to refuse

Opt-out movement gains foothold in Tennessee as more parents and students refuse state assessment

PHOTO: Provided by Anna Thorsen
Clara Thorsen writes a letter to Commissioner Candice McQueen about TNReady.

Tears rolled down Clara Thorsen’s face on Monday morning. Despite the Supergirl shirt she was wearing, the third-grader didn’t feel ready to take TNReady, the state’s new end-of-course exam.

“I feel stressed out and unhappy,” she quietly told her mom, Anna. “I just want to be home.”

Anna Thorsen felt conflicted. Clara has dyslexia, making it especially challenging to write essays by hand, a key component of the new test. Although Clara is intellectually gifted, Thorsen knew that she’d likely score below grade level because of her disability. Still, teachers and administrators at Clara’s Nashville elementary school were ready and willing to provide all the supports allowed for testing.

Thorsen opted to drop off Clara at school for Part I of the state assessment. But for Part II of the test next month, Clara will join the growing ranks of Tennessee students who are “opting out” — or refusing to take the state’s standardized test.

“We gave it a shot. We tried. But I’ve never seen my daughter this low,” Thorsen said this week. “She can’t emotionally do it again.”

"We gave it a shot. We tried. But I’ve never seen my daughter this low."Anna Thorsen, parent

While the Tennessee Department of Education can’t provide statewide numbers at this point, anecdotal evidence suggests that the opt-out wave is beginning to gain traction in Tennessee, a year after mass numbers of students refused tests in states including New York,Washington, and Colorado. 

This week, almost half of students at one Chattanooga elementary school refused to take the TNReady test. Rep. Mike Stewart, a Democrat from Nashville, opted his child out. Social media is abuzz with parents seeking guidance on how to get their child out of testing, too. And a popular Tennessee-based blog has set forth a comprehensive guide for parents called “Choose to Refuse.”

Adding to momentum is the state’s rocky rollout of this year’s new test, which has been beset by technical problems and delays, causing parents and teachers to call into question the test’s legitimacy.

State officials insist that you can’t opt out of the state’s standardized tests, which are used to make decisions about schools and teachers — and are necessary for the state to receive federal funding, as well as know which schools and students need the most support. The tests are required, emphasizes State Department of Education spokeswoman Ashley Ball.

“Given both the importance and legal obligation, our department’s policy is that parents may not refuse or opt a child out of participating in state assessments,” Ball said Tuesday.. “Except for situations where the Tennessee General Assembly has specifically provided the right to opt out in the law, such as the family life curriculum, parents and/or students may not opt out of state-mandated content or instructional programs, including assessments.”

Ball added that there is no federal law directly authorizing parents and students to skip standardized testing.

For the state and many educators, standardized assessments are a helpful tool to understand how students are progressing and to see if the state is fulfilling its responsibility to make sure kids are college-ready, and that all kids — not just students who are middle or upper-middle class and white, like many of the students refusing the test — are receiving an adequate education.

Many parents behind “opt out” say they’re not against standardized testing altogether. But they do think schools spend too much time preparing for and administering the tests. They are concerned that the tests measure test-taking skills more than knowledge. And they are critical of how this year’s scores won’t be returned until October, rendering them largely useless to teachers since students already will have started new classes by then.

“I’m not opposed to testing,” said Heather DeGaetano, whose fourth-grade daughter refused testing this week in Chattanooga. “In fact, I think testing has a useful place in our children’s education. I’m opposed to testing in this amount, and I’m opposed to testing when the results don’t mean anything.”

"I'm not opposed to testing...I'm opposed to testing in this amount, and I'm opposed to testing when the results don't mean anything."Heather DeGaetano, parent

Others view this year’s shift in state testing as a work in progress. Zack Barnes, a literacy teacher at Nashville’s Apollo Middle Prep School, wishes standardized tests gave him better information about his students. But he thinks that TNReady, which is aligned with the Common Core state standards and includes more open-ended questions, is a move in the right direction. The only way to improve it, he says, is to take it.

“Of course, we need fewer and better tests,” said Barnes, who is also an education blogger. “But it gives a great snapshot of a school. How are the schools progressing? Do they need any extra support?”

While other states have opt-out policies, Tennessee has none, meaning students who want to skip the test have to refuse the test when their teacher hands it to them — a daunting step for students who have disabilities or are inclined to follow rules. At some schools, the refusers have been permitted to read; at other schools, students have to sit quietly. One mom in Chattanooga even reported her son had to sit on his hands for the duration of the exam earlier this week.

Schools are in a tricky position when faced with students opting out. Districts are not authorized to adopt policies allowing students to refuse the test, or to offer alternate activities such as study hall or computer lab, for students whose parents refuse to have them participate in state assessments.

And because there is no set policy, every parent has had a different journey to refusing the test in behalf of a child.

DeGaetano had a community with whom to refuse the test. At the beginning of the school year, she talked to her school’s PTA president about the large amount of testing happening throughout the year. They organized a meeting to explore opting out and were surprised when about 40 parents showed up.

“It turned out there were lots of parents who weren’t feeling good about it,” DeGaetano said. “We said, ‘Oh OK. It’s not just the crazy people who complain about anything.’”

The parents talked about civil disobedience with their children and instructed them how to refuse the test. In the end, more than 200 students at Normal Park Magnet Elementary refused the test this week. The principal did not encourage the parents, but she listened to their concerns, DeGaetano says.

We felt “like there was safety in numbers,” she said.

In Knox County, Leslie Kurtz had a lonelier path. Because she began refusing the test before opt-out gained traction in Tennessee, she’s developed a reputation as a bit of an opt-out guru. Every day, she receives calls and emails asking for advice.

She’s instructed her son Rio, now in the eighth grade, to refuse tests since he was in the sixth grade. The first year he refused end-of-year testing, he had to sit and stare for hours while his classmates tested. The second year, he went to Washington, D.C., with a friend’s family. Kurtz dismissed a letter warning of truancy after he missed the testing days. In past years, standardized test scores have counted for Rio’s grades, but this year they won’t because of the delay in scoring. In years the scores have counted, Kurtz has asked teachers to print out his grades before the ‘zeros’ from state test are included.

“We’ve had many conversations about civil disobedience,” Kurtz said of her talks with her son. “He actually learned more by refusing the test then he would have by taking it.”

Though the Department of Education appears unlikely to make refusing the test easier in the near future, it made efforts last year to begin addressing teacher and parent concerns about testing.  Education Commissioner Candice McQueen convened a task force to look into complaints about over-testing. As a result of the panel’s recommendations, a bill was drafted to eliminate a set of standardized tests. And, in the in order to create a more relaxed testing atmosphere this year, the state is allowing students to read after testing and teachers are no longer required to cover their bulletin boards.

"(Tests give) a great snapshot of a school. How are the schools progressing? Do they need any extra support?”"Zack Barnes, teacher

But for many parents, that’s not enough. They want to see a steeper reduction in the time their children spend preparing for and taking standardized tests.

As in Tennessee, opt-out has largely taken root among white parents, many with advanced degrees. Both DeGaetano and Anna Thorsen are attorneys. That’s not the profile of most Tennessee public school families, more than half of whom are economically disadvantaged.

DeGaetano says she thinks seriously about those implications.

“If you’re working third shift, tracking all of this information (about testing) down on the Tennessee Department of Education website is not an easy thing to do,” she said.

She hopes ultimately that refusing the test will lead to better policies across the state. “This is about more than my kid,” she said.

To Do

Tennessee’s new ed chief says troubleshooting testing is first priority

PHOTO: (Caiaimage/Robert Daly)

Penny Schwinn knows that ensuring a smooth testing experience for Tennessee students this spring will be her first order of business as the state’s new education chief.

Even before Gov.-elect Bill Lee announced her hiring on Thursday, she was poring over a recent report by the state’s chief investigator about what went wrong with TNReady testing last spring and figuring out her strategy for a different outcome.

“My first days will be spent talking with educators and superintendents in the field to really understand the scenario here in Tennessee,” said Schwinn, who’s been chief deputy commissioner of academics in Texas since 2016.

“I’ll approach this problem with a healthy mixture of listening and learning,” she added.

Schwinn’s experience with state assessment programs in Texas and in Delaware — where she was assistant secretary of education — is one of the strengths cited by Lee in selecting her for one of his most critical cabinet posts.

The Republican governor-elect has said that getting TNReady right is a must after three straight years of missteps in administration and scoring in Tennessee’s transition to online testing. Last year, technical disruptions interrupted so many testing days that state lawmakers passed emergency legislation ordering that poor scores couldn’t be used to penalize students, teachers, schools, or districts.

Schwinn, 36, recalls dealing with testing headaches during her first days on the job in Texas.

“We had testing disruptions. We had test booklets mailed to the wrong schools. We had answer documents in testing booklets. We had online administration failures,” she told Chalkbeat. “From that, we brought together teachers, superintendents, and experts to figure out solutions, and we had a near-perfect administration of our assessment the next year.”

What she learned in the process: the importance of tight vendor management, including setting clear expectations of what’s expected.

She plans to use the same approach in Tennessee, working closely with people in her new department and Questar Assessment, the state’s current vendor.

“Our job is to think about how to get online testing as close to perfect as possible for our students and educators, and that is going to be a major focus,” she said.

The test itself has gotten good reviews in Tennessee; it’s the online miscues that have many teachers and parents questioning the switch from paper-and-pencil exams. Schwinn sees no choice but to forge ahead online and is quick to list the benefits.

“If you think about how children learn and access information today, many are getting that information from hand-held devices and computers,” she said, “so reflecting that natural experience in our classrooms is incredibly important.”

Schwinn said computerized testing also holds promise for accommodating students with disabilities and provides for a more engaging experience for all students.

“When you look at the multiple-choice tests that we took in school and compare that to an online platform where students can watch videos, perform science experiments, do drag-and-drop and other features, students are just more engaged in the content,” she said.

“It’s a more authentic experience,” she added, “and therefore a better measure of learning.”

Schwinn plans to examine Tennessee’s overall state testing program to look for ways to reduce the number of minutes dedicated to assessment and also to elevate transparency.

She also will oversee the transition when one or more companies take over the state’s testing program beginning next school year. Former Commissioner Candice McQueen ordered a new request for proposals from vendors to provide paper testing for younger students and online testing for older ones. State officials have said they hope to award the contract by spring.

In Texas, a 2018 state audit criticized Schwinn’s handling of two major education contracts, including a no-bid special education contract that lost the state more than $2 million.

In Tennessee, an evaluation committee that includes programmatic, assessment, and technology experts will help to decide the new testing contract, and state lawmakers on the legislature’s Government Operations Committee plan to provide another layer of oversight.

Spring testing in Tennessee is scheduled to begin on April 15. You can learn more about TNReady on the state education department’s website.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information about problems with the handling of two education contracts in Texas. 

Class of 2018

Some Colorado schools see big gains in grad rates. Find yours in our searchable database.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Aurora Public Schools
Aurora West College Preparatory Academy graduates of 2018. The school had a 100 percent graduation rate.

Two metro-area school districts, Westminster and Aurora, recently in the state’s crosshairs for their low-performance, posted significant increases in their graduation rates, according to 2018 numbers released Wednesday.

Westminster, a district that got off the state’s watchlist just last year, had 67.9 percent of its students graduate on time, within four years of starting high school. That was a jump of 10 percentage points from its 57.8 percent graduation rate in 2017.

District officials credit their unique model of competency-based education, which does away with grade levels and requires students prove they mastered content before moving up a level. In previous years, district officials pointed to rising graduation rates that Colorado also tracks for students who take five, six or seven years, but officials say it was bound to impact their 4-year rates as well.

“We saw an upward tick across the board this past year,” said Westminster Superintendent Pam Swanson, referring to state test results and other data also showing achievement increasing. “I think this is one more indicator.”

Swanson said the high school has also focused recently on increasing attendance, now at almost 90 percent, and increasing students’ responsibility for their own learning.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

In Aurora schools, 76.5 percent of students graduated on time in 2018 — a jump of almost 9 percentage points from the 67.6 percent rate of the class of 2017.

“We’re excited these rates demonstrate momentum in our work,” Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn said.

He attributed the increased graduation rates to “better practice, better pedagogy, and better policy.”

One policy that made a difference for the district is a change in law that now allows districts to count students as graduates the year they complete their high school requirements, even if they are enrolled in one of Colorado’s programs to take college courses while doing a fifth year of high school.

According to a state report two years ago, Aurora had 65 students enrolled in this specific concurrent enrollment program who previously wouldn’t have been counted in four-year graduation rates. Only the Denver district has a larger number of such students. Aurora officials said 147 students are enrolled this year in the program.

Those students are successful, Munn said, and shouldn’t be counted against the district’s on-time graduation rates.

Aurora’s previously rising graduation rates helped it dodge corrective state action. But its improvement this year included a first: One high school, Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, had 100 percent of its seniors graduate in 2018.

The school enrolls students in grades six through 12 in northwest Aurora, the most diverse part of the district. Of the more than 1,000 students, 89 percent qualify for subsidized lunch, a measure of poverty.

“This incredible accomplishment demonstrates the strong student-focused culture we have created at Aurora West,” said Principal Taya Tselolikhina in a written statement. “When you establish high expectations and follow up with high levels of support, every student is able to shape a successful future.”

Statewide, the four-year graduation rate once again inched higher, and gaps between the graduation rate of white students and students of color again decreased. But this time, the gaps narrowed even as all student groups increased their graduation rates.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

The rising trend wasn’t universal. In some metro area school districts, graduation rates fell in 2018. That includes Adams 14, the district that is now facing outside management after years of low performance.

The tiny school district of Sheridan, just southwest of Denver, saw a significant drop in graduation rates. In 2018, 64.7 percent of students graduated within four years, down from 72.7 percent of the class of 2017.

Look up four-year graduation rates for your individual school or district in our databases below.

Districts here: