Opt-out answers sought in Maryland, Illinois

The school board in Frederick County, Maryland, asked the state board about three months ago what to do in the event students choose to opt out of taking state-mandated tests this spring.

Parents in Brooklyn choose to opt-out of state-mandated testing, Girl Ray via Flickr Creative Commons
Brooklyn parents choose to opt-out of state-mandated testing (Girl Ray / Flickr Creative Commons)

But so far, the state board hasn’t given Frederick County Public Schools an answer, the Frederick News-Post reports.

The local school district filed a petition on December 7 to request a declaratory ruling that might clarify the state’s actual position on allowing students to refuse to take standardized tests. Sometimes parents write an opt-out request on behalf of their son or daughter.

The state board here is under no obligation to respond in a given time frame, but with tests now under way in science and PARCC testing starting in a few weeks, the question is pressing. In addition, one parent filed suit regarding her right to refuse state testing on behalf of her child, but the Frederick County Circuit Court sent the matter to the local board of education, which denied her request for permission to opt out. Her son is severely disabled, according to the News-Post, and she feels he shouldn’t have to take the PARCC standardized tests.

The state of Maryland has no law or regulation on the books at this time regarding a student or parent opting out of a state standardized test. Kids can refuse to write anything in the test booklet put in front of them, but there’s no way for a student to pre-emptively opt out.

Usually these students just sit in the room and read a book or sit silently. The Frederick County school board may discuss the issue at its March 9 meeting, according to the article.

Some states saw higher opt-out rates; Illinois threatens inquiry

Maryland has had few instances of students opting out of state tests, but 13 states received stern letters from the US Education Department after last spring’s testing, informing them that they didn’t meet, at least in some districts or with some subgoups of students, the requirement that at least 95 percent of students be tested.

The states that received the letters were California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Illinois, Maine, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Washington, and Wisconsin.

In general, opt-out requests tend to be concentrated among wealthier and whiter school districts, and high school students tend to opt out at higher rates than third graders.

In Illinois, about 4 percent, or 40,000, out of a million students statewide didn’t sit for at least one test during the 2014-15 school year. Half of them attended a school in Chicago, where opt-out rates were as low as 0.4 percent at a neighborhood high school and as high as 90 percent at a top-ranked magnet school. Only about 9 percent of the students at Rolling Meadows High School took state tests last year, with the remainder opting out.

The Illinois State Board of Education said it will launch an inquiry, which some have likened to the Spanish Inquisition, into why so many students in certain districts decided to opt out of state-mandated testing. The inquiry may include questioning parents and teachers, but it is unclear at this time how the state board will conduct the parent or student interviews.

It’s also not clear what action the state board would be able to take under current Illinois law, regardless of what the inquiry may find in terms of opt-out facts. The inquiry itself may be in response to a federal request, but the questioning will have an impact on local classrooms.

Still, according to the Chicago Tribune, a letter from State Superintendent Tony Smith said the state board’s going to be looking into it. So, some people from the state board are probably going to ask a few people some questions like, Why did you opt out? And the answers may well be that they are against standardized testing or that the tests were bad for their schedules or that they wouldn’t get the results for several months.

And then what? That’s not clear at this point, and since the eventual penalty hasn’t been spelled out by the state legislature or state board before the fact, how can any ex post facto law or punishment be enforced? A state-level inquiry wouldn’t typically try to discover mitigating factors that might reduce penalties in certain cases.

“After reviewing and considering all this information, ISBE should have a clear understanding as to why the participation rate was not satisfied and then may tailor any course of action to the specific circumstances of each school district,” the ISBE letter, dated February 18, said.

Look, based on national surveys, everyone knows what the answers will be, so schools might consider keeping everybody in their classrooms: tests already pull them out too much, and more time out of class for an inquiry about testing, on its face, moves away from the direction the Obama administration hoped schools would take when the president called for limiting the time students spend on testing.

New York had the highest opt-out rate among all states. Something like 220,000 third through eighth graders chose not to take state tests. That’s about 20 percent of those eligible.

Opting out was concentrated in Long Island’s Nassau and Suffolk counties, two of the wealthiest counties in the country, where 87,000 students opted out, constituting almost half of Long Island’s eligible students.

People who opted out were more likely to be white and less likely to attend a school in a low-income district, according to Education Week. Also, kids who opted out of last year’s testing were more likely than kids who decided to take the test to have failed to achieve proficiency on standardized tests the year before.

New Jersey came in second in the opt-out horse race. Close to 200,000 students opted out there, constituting about 11 percent of eligible students. The opt-outs were concentrated in wealthier districts as well, and it was mostly high school students, who may have been juggling Advanced Placement tests, college entrance exams, and other critical tests, at the same time.

In the Garden State, 27 percent of 11th graders opted out, according to the New Jersey Department of Education, compared to only 4 percent of third graders.

The Colorado Department of Education reported similar differences there between high school opt-out rates and those among third graders. Colorado’s 11th graders refused to take the PARCC English Language Arts test at a rate of 31.3 percent; only 2.5 percent of third graders refused to take the PARCC English test.

The mood in the nation is mixed when it comes to parents having the right to opt-out their children. PDK/Gallup reported that 41 percent of adults think parents should be allowed to excuse their children from standardized tests. Only 31 percent said they would actually pull their own child out of state-mandated tests.

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Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.