Bureaucrats Try to Quash Common Core Test Opt Outs

Published March 27, 2014

Between March 25 and June 6, more than 4 million kids will sit for the trial run of national Common Core tests. Faced with a rise in parents who don’t want their kids taking these tests, state officials are pushing school districts to crack down and insisting opt outs are illegal. That’s debatable.

Parents raised an uproar when Chicago officials pulled kids from their classrooms to “interrogate” them about whether teachers had encouraged them to resist mandated tests, the Sun-Times reported. Officials are using similar tactics nationwide. In Colorado, school officials sent police to a family’s doorstep after an autistic child’s parents opted him out because tests make him so anxious he bites himself, the Colorado Independent reported.

Forty states plan to replace their tests in 2015 with national Common Core tests from one of two federally funded organizations known as PARCC and Smarter Balanced. In some states this spring, kids will have to take both the state test and Common Core field tests in math and English. In six states, students will only take the field test, creating a three- to four-year gap in test-based accountability measures meant to improve schools for millions of kids. Students, teachers, and taxpayers will get no results from the trial run. Instead, it provides data to get those tests ready for 2015.

“The kids are being inappropriately used to provide data for assessments that don’t help kids understand what they need to learn,” said Tim Slekar, an education professor at Penn State Altoona and one of the leaders of United Opt Out, a national volunteer organization. “Parents are saying more and more, ‘Not my child, not my child’s data.'”

Spike in Interest
Opt-out numbers can’t be known until the tests are over, but Slekar says United Opt Out has added 4,000 members in the past six months, which more than doubled its size. Many more parents are calling him for advice now, too. Last Tuesday, he spent two hours on the phone counseling a parent about opting out.

Students have been opting out in unprecedented numbers in Chicago, Denver, Seattle, Nashville, and New York City. Parents who pull their kids from tests typically complain about the lost instructional time, test anxiety, lack of relevance to instruction, and states using tests to push teachers and schools around. Others see opt outs as a way to protest Common Core itself.

“We haven’t found any state that has a no opt-out clause,” Slekar said. “We ask for [administrators] to put in writing that it’s illegal to opt out, and there hasn’t been one case where they’re willing to put their name to that. It isn’t illegal.”

The opt-out form on Truth in American Education, a nexus for Common Core opponents, has been accessed nearly 200,000 times in the past year from its host at Box.com, said James Wilson, a Washington dad and teacher who helps run the site. In addition, it’s been accessed 49,882 times from the TAE site, said Shane Vander Hart, an Iowa dad who also helps run it.

“There has been a noticeable increase in email and voicemail Truth in American Education receives related to opt out questions and issues,” Wilson said in an email.

Manipulating Language
Worcester, Norwood, Peabody, and Tantasqua school districts in Massachusetts have bucked their state departments of education, passing resolutions telling parents they are free to opt their children out of the field tests.

“Every time you turn around, there are new requirements on our school district but no money to back them up,” Tantasqua school board member Mike Valanzola told the Massachusetts Telegram and Gazette. “We are tired of the mandates and, ultimately, we are a School Choice district that believes in choice. Choice should rest with the parents.”

Officials at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (MDESE) insist Valanzola is wrong.

“What we’re advising parents or districts is that the law does not provide an opt out for students from this testing program,” said J.C. Considine, the department’s chief of staff. “It’s important for the state to gain valuable information. We want students to be a part of the development of what could be our next assessment system.”

School Reform News repeatedly asked Considine, point blank, whether it is illegal for a parent to opt his child out of Massachusetts tests. He would not answer directly, but kept responding, instead: “There is no opt-out provision.”

‘This Is a Bluff’
That means state law is silent about opt outs, not that it is illegal, said Sandra Stotsky, a former senior associate commissioner for MDESE.

“This is a bluff,” she said over email. “So long as the law does not forbid opt-outs by parents, then parents can opt-out—anywhere.”

School districts received a letter from MDESE’s senior counsel, Rhoda Schneider. It says “participation in the PARCC assessment field test is mandatory and not subject to opting out.”

“Do not believe Rhoda Schneider on this one,” Stotsky said. “She has told the [Massachusetts Board of Education] on other occasions that what the law does not explicitly forbid can be done.”

When asked what penalties students face for opting out, Considine said, “We’re not looking at penalties right now.” On March 20, MDESE senior associate commissioner Bob Bickerton reaffirmed that after questions at a public meeting: “We’re not going to force the kids to take the test,” he said, according to the Medford Daily News.

At that meeting, parents complained that MDESE was talking out of both sides of its mouth. Education officials want to intimidate parents so the opt-out movement doesn’t grow further, said Barbara Madeloni, the volunteer coordinator for United Opt Out in Massachusetts.

Punishing Opt-Outs
Several other state departments of education have taken lines similar to that of MDESE. In November, Nevada state Superintendent Dale Erquiaga issued a memo also saying state and federal law include no opt-out provisions and require “all” children to be tested. After grassroots leader Christina Leventis asked the state attorney general to review that memo, Erquiaga issued another March 21, saying “state law does not require the expressed participation in field testing… Indeed, other states are allowing an ‘opt out’ for the field tests.”

Erquiaga maintained parents may not refuse state tests or data collection on their kids’ behalf, which means no opt outs in 2015 and thereafter when Common Core tests intend to replace state tests. Approximately 44,000 Nevada students are slated to take the field tests, and the state department of education has received “no more than half a dozen inquiries from parents” about opting out, said spokeswoman Judy Osgood.

North Carolina may have the harshest penalty for students who opt out, as sixth grader Zoe Morris found last year when she decided taking Common Core tests violated her conscience.

Charlie Morris, her father, told school officials he and Zoe had decided she would not take the tests. They pulled their lawyer on him. Ultimately, Zoe sat in front of the test screen and refused to enter a thing. The school had effectively placed her on time out for refusing the test.

Charlie and Zoe thought it was over. Just a few weeks ago, they got results for the test she had refused to take. She was given the lowest possible score on the test even though she never touched it, marring her excellent academic record. North Carolina law says state tests must comprise 20 percent of a student’s final grade in the subjects tested.

But, according to Tammi Howard, director of accountability at the North Carolina department of education, students who are absent on testing day and for whom “it is not possible to administer a make-up” can have their final grade calculated without the [end of course] or final exam. “This may occur is situations such as a death in a family,” she explained.

Penalties for opting out, however, are “local decisions,” Howard said.

Test Policy Confusion
Massachusetts mother Michelle Furtado has been hounding state and school officials to get them to let her daughter opt out of the field tests. She does not want her child to be “a guinea pig” for Common Core tests. Her daughter’s principal told her kids could not opt out, based on the information he had received from Schneider. Her superintendent said the same. So Furtado checked with MDESE.

“[S]tate law does not provide an opt-out for districts or students,” Associate Commissioner Elizabeth Davis wrote to Furtado on the same day Bickerton implied the contrary, attaching Schneider’s letter. “We expect and need all students selected for the PARCC field test to participate so we can build the best possible test.”

Davis also refused to answer Furtado, yes or no, whether opting out is illegal. She would only say “there is no opt-out provision.”

School officials told Furtado her daughter had been randomly selected to take the field test only two days before the eighth grader was scheduled to start watching videos about how to take the test online.

“I do not want my children to participate in any unnecessary testing,” Furtado wrote to her daughter’s principal. “I do wish [my daughter] had not been informed before I was. Now I have to explain my decision to her.”

Furtado has written to practically every state and district official she could find who have authority over or expertise in testing policy. None have yet directly answered her question over whether opting out is illegal.

“Getting answers is more time-consuming than getting sap from a maple tree,” she said.

‘Tested to Death’
Furtado is not the only irritated mother. One hundred and sixty-nine Massachusetts teachers and professors have signed a statement protesting the use of tests to measure schools and students.

“I find no reason to waste valuable educational resources, both in time and money, field testing an assessment that is presumably based on inferior educational standards,” said Bill Gillmeister, a Tantasqua school board member and father of two daughters. “We already have an assessment that’s working perfectly fine. We already did our field tests with the [existing state test]. And I don’t want my kids to participate. If anything else, I’m making a political statement. My kids are being tested to death.”

Massachusetts Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester is chairman of PARCC’s governing board, so has a vested interest in these tests although Massachusetts has not yet decided whether it will use them at all, Gillmeister noted. The Massachusetts Association of School Committees adopted a resolution in November asking the state to delay using the PARCC test. They also asked state auditors to determine whether it would constitute an unfunded mandate, because the test is online and many school districts don’t have enough computers or bandwith to put so many students online for testing.

“Local school districts need to allocate their resources the way that they think best,” Gillmeister said. “It may be the case that computing resources are not what they think best to spend their money on. But here, if they have to implement the PARCC assessment by computers, they don’t have the choice.”

Forcing Kids to Test
The federal No Child Left Behind law requires schools to test 95 percent of their students. This was considered a win for Republicans when the law passed in 2001, because it was the first time all U.S. schools had to demonstrate what taxpayers were getting for the $600 billion they spend each year on K-12 alone.

“Part of that is to be able to say this school didn’t just pick 50 percent of the brightest students, so test results reflect the vast majority of their students,” Howard noted.

But NCLB doesn’t require kids to take the test. It only requires that schools give it, Slekar said. That distinction is lost on many officials, including Jesse Steiner, superintendent of Celina City Schools in Ohio. This week, he refused a parent’s request to opt her child from Common Core tests on the advice of the district’s lawyer, because “schools are required by Ohio law to administer required state assessments,” he wrote the parent.

While field tests are not mandatory like the real ones, PARCC and Smarter Balanced need kids to sit for them or the tests they ultimately put together may not accurately measure student abilities, Howard said.

“If enough students opt out, the final test would not represent all students of the population,” Howard said. 


Image by Peng Zhang