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Efforts to reduce high-stakes standardized testing made headway in many school districts across the country in 2017, but there is still a great deal of it.

Parents, students, public education advocates and assessment experts have told policymakers for years that relying on standardized tests for decisions is unfair, and that excessive testing has led to a narrowing of curriculum and to evaluation systems that assessed teachers on the scores of students they didn’t have.

The standardized test-based accountability movement of recent years spawned an opt-out effort in which tens of thousands of students have refused to take the test. Some schools honored their decision while other threatened the students in one way or another.

So what does the federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, say about opting out of tests? This post looks at that issue. It was written by Lisa Guisbond, assessment reform analyst at the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, a nonprofit group known as FairTest that works to end the abuse of standardized tests.

By Lisa Guisbond

Assessment reform activists have recognized that the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) — the successor K-12 law to No Child Left Behind — is ambiguous, if not contradictory, in the way it deals with children who opt out of standardized exams.

ESSA explicitly recognizes parents’ right to refuse testing for their children. But it also requires states to include the non-scores of test refusers in school evaluations if more than 5 percent opt out. The law then says states must act to lower the number of test refusers.

These requirements do not mean that states, districts or schools should bully or coerce parents and students. Yet stories continue to surface of states and districts threatening and pressuring families who do refuse to participate in standardized exam overuse and misuse. New York, home of the nation’s largest and most powerful test opt-out movement, has emerged as a flash point and model of how to sustain strong collective resistance to coercion and threats. In many districts more than 50 percent of eligible New York public school students refused this year’s tests.

Last month, New York state spelled out its plans for schools with substantial numbers of test refusers. The new regulations said Title 1 districts with less than 95 percent test participation would have to spend federal funds to urge more families to take the exams. The regulations also made it more likely that schools with low test-taking rates would be labeled “nonproficient.”

In response, the New York State United Teachers, or NYSUT, issued a statement saying, “The draft ESSA regulations make a direct frontal assault on the rights of parents to opt-out their children from the state testing system.”

A statement from New York State Allies for Public Education (NYSAPE), an opt-out and test resistance group, said the regulations run the risk of leading to closure or charter conversion of schools with high opt-out rates. NYSAPE said, “None of these provisions are required in the ESSA law, none of them would improve the learning conditions for New York State children, and all of them contradict earlier statements from the New York State Education Department that schools with high opt-out rates would not be punished.”

New Yorkers are not alone in facing coercive tactics. Other examples include:

  • Some students in Washington, D.C., who opted out were instructed to take an equivalent paper-and-pencil exam; students in New Jersey and other states who refused to take the state test were administered a teacher-prepared test and told it will count toward their grade;
  • Students in online charter schools in several states were threatened with expulsion for opting out;
  • Families have been told that they are putting their school at risk of losing state or federal funding;
  • In Minnesota, students were warned that they would be labeled “not proficient” if they did not take the test.

Since many threats are based on false or misleading information, it is important for parents, students and teachers to know what the law says and doesn’t say when it comes to testing and opting out:

In fact, federal law does not call for withholding funds from schools for low participation. Nor has there been any case where funds have been cut because of high numbers of test refusals. Practically speaking, it is unlikely that most states have the wherewithal or capacity to intervene in schools just because of test refusals. Some states have said they will not intervene beyond asking schools to improve participation, with no punishment required or even implied.

Parents, educators and students exercising their right to protest the overuse and misuse of testing should remember a few key points.

First, they are not alone. Many other parents, students and teachers across the nation recognize the need to end this era of test overuse and misuse. Many are resisting the ongoing testing obsession.

Second, what is presented by administrators as policy is sometimes flat-out false. And third, when families join with educators and push back, armed with accurate information about relevant laws and regulations, the threats are usually withdrawn.

No matter how baseless the threats, it is difficult for individual parents or students to push back. That’s why in some places educators and parents build networks and movements to support one another as they try to build a movement for less testing and more learning.