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OPTING OUT/OPTING IN: New ECS Report Examines State Assessment Opt-Out Policies

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Instead of opting out of state tests, which provide schools and parents with valuable information about student learning, Rothman encourages parents to advocate for policies that evaluate schools based on multiple measures, instead of on test scores alone.

A recent report from the Education Commission of the States (ECS) offers new insight into the debate about whether students can choose not to take a state’s tests.

The report, Assessment Opt-Out Policies: State Responses to Parent Pushback, examines the disparate policies and varying levels of flexibility states grant students to “opt out” of tests. “Determining whether states allow assessment opt-outs can be complex and is constantly evolving,” according to the report. While “[s]ome state policies are clear on this issue,” the report explains, “many are still working through the process.”

Some states, such as California and Utah, have explicit laws that allow parents to withhold their children from state assessments for any reason. State laws in Oregon and Pennsylvania, meanwhile, allow students to opt out of state tests for religious reasons. Currently, state legislatures in New Jersey and North Dakota are considering bills that would allow students to opt out of the state tests. (Similar legislation in Mississippi failed in committee.) Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) recently issued an executive order that could allow students to opt out of the state tests as well.

On the other end of the spectrum, Arkansas state law mandates that all students participate in the state testing program. Similarly, Texas law stipulates that parents may not remove their children from school to avoid a test.

While some state laws clearly allow or prohibit students from opting out of tests, most schools and districts rely on guidance from their departments and state boards of education to clarify the issue, according to the ECS report. This strategy can prove problematic, though, since the level of guidance available varies by state as “many departments of education are often silent on the issue,” the report says.

In several states, including New Jersey, South Carolina, Iowa, Illinois, and Kentucky, state departments of education have issued district guidance prohibiting students from opting out of tests or mandating that students complete them, often citing accountability provisions in state law and the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) to support their stance. The Ohio Department of Education even issued guidance outlining the potential consequences students would face if they did not take the state assessment, including possible grade retention or impacts on graduation.

Although Michigan’s department of education discourages student opt-outs, it does not expressly prohibit the practice. The Minnesota Department of Education expects students to participate in the state testing program but indicated that it will not enforce any consequences or withhold diplomas from students who opt out. The Idaho Department of Education, meanwhile, allows districts to set their own policies.

The ECS report comes at a time when many districts are experiencing increased parental resistance to standardized testing and amid recent media reports of students walking out of schools on test day in protest. However, in a recent post for the Alliance for Excellent Education’s “High School Soup” blog, Robert Rothman, senior fellow at the Alliance, explains why he chose to “opt in” and have his daughter participate in a new test this month, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). PARCC tests are aligned with the Common Core State Standards.

“The PARCC test is different,” Rothman explains, because it emphasizes deeper learning competencies that engage students’ critical thinking and reasoning skills to solve complex problems. “Those are the kinds of competencies I want my daughter to be able to demonstrate,” he adds.

Instead of opting out of state tests, which provide schools and parents with valuable information about student learning, Rothman encourages parents to advocate for policies that evaluate schools based on multiple measures, instead of on test scores alone. “As long as test scores are the only measure of a school’s performance, schools have incentives to devote an inordinate amount of time to test prep and other measures to raise scores that have nothing to do with learning,” he writes.

Assessment Opt-Out Policies: State Responses to Parent Pushback is available at http://www.ecs.org/clearinghouse/01/17/68/11768.pdf.

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