State seeks to limit opt-out options as TNReady Part II approaches

With one part of TNReady down and one still to go, superintendents across Tennessee have received a matter-of-fact directive from the State Department of Education: don’t make it easier for students to refuse to take the state’s new standardized test.

District leaders received a memo last week instructing schools to “address student absences on testing days in the same manner as they would address a student’s failure to participate in any other mandatory activity at school (e.g. final exams) by applying the district’s or school’s attendance policies.”

“Results from TCAP tests give both teachers and parents a unique feedback loop and big-picture perspective to better understand how students are progressing and how they can support their academic development,” the memo reads. “State and federal law also requires student participation in state assessments. In fact, these statutes specifically reference the expectation that all students enrolled in public schools in Tennessee will complete annual assessments.”

The communication reflects growing concern from state and local officials that Tennessee will see a spike in students choosing to opt out of the second part of TNReady, scheduled to be administered between April 25 and May 11 in grades 3-11. The test is a critical measure of performance — not just for students but for teachers, schools, districts and the state.

While officials can’t provide statewide numbers at this point, anecdotal evidence suggests that the number of Tennessee students opting out is mounting, a year after large numbers of students refused tests in states including New York, Washington and Colorado. In Chattanooga, for instance, more than 200 students at Normal Park Magnet Elementary School refused last month to take TNReady Part I.

Because Tennessee has no official opt-out policy, students wanting to opt out must “refuse the test” when their teacher hands it to them. In contrast, parents in New York can notify their principal in writing that they intend to refuse tests in behalf of their child.

During TNReady Part I, some schools permitted students who were opting out to sit in class and read during the testing. The memo says that schools should not offer alternative activities for students not partIcipating in mandatory testing.

The state’s rocky rollout of this year’s new test, which has been beset by technical problems and delays, likely has added to the momentum of the nascent movement. And because test scores will be released late this year due to the transition to TNReady, teachers and parents consider them less helpful than in years past, since students already will have moved on to the next grade.

In New York, opt-out movements saw spikes in the second year after transitioning to new tests, with one in five students refusing state tests amid widespread criticism of the state’s testing program. But since Tennessee’s new test was broken in two parts, some parents who saw frustrations stemming from Part I have indicated they may ask that their child refuse the second part.

While conversations about opting out have expanded, it’s unclear whether the talk will translate into action.

In Murfreesboro, city school board member Jared Barrett recently commented that perhaps his whole district should opt out. He later said his remark was an expression of frustration over TNReady’s technical problems, not a call to action. Once he looked into the potential cost to his district of a wholesale refusal to administer the test — including loss of state and federal funds — he said that the avenue wasn’t worth pursuing.

Dan Lawson, superintendent of Tullahoma City Schools, said he hasn’t been contacted directly by parents about opting out, but has increasingly seen those conversations on social media.

“I think social media has fed (opt-out) a bit,” he said last week. “Many of us believe that that set of numbers will grow. How large? I don’t know.”

You can see the memo here: