Test-Participation Mandate Puts States on Spot

How to deal with opt-outs remains tricky under ESSA

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As states prepare for the transition to the new federal education law passed last month, one of the thornier policy questions is how they'll consider test-participation rates in their accountability systems, after a year in which the testing opt-out movement rose to national prominence.

States are considering various approaches to try to ensure schools meet the requirement under the Every Student Succeeds Act (the newest iteration of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act) that 95 percent of eligible students take state exams in English/language arts and math.

The plans to deal with high opt-out numbers in at least a few states follow suggestions from the U.S. Department of Education about how to respond to relatively low participation numbers. The department also notified 13 states that, according to data, the 95 percent participation requirement was not met either by districts in their state or statewide for the 2014-15 academic year. But even those plans could shift once states' ESEA waivers end and life under ESSA gets under way.

Within the Margins

The key ESSA language regarding test participation says that in addition to reporting the percentage of students participating in mandatory state exams, states must "provide a clear and understandable explanation of how the State will factor the requirement ... into the statewide accountability system."

But what it means to "factor" participation rates into accountability, or what it should mean, depends on whom you talk to.

It's unclear whether the opt-out movement will grow in stature and number this spring, or fade away as parents and schools become more used to tests aligned to the Common Core State Standards. Most states administered such tests for the first time last year.

But in guidance issued to states last month, the U.S. Department of Education laid out options for how states might respond to high opt-out rates, such as withholding money from schools, or flagging a district or school as "high risk," along with an explanation for accountability purposes. (Since that guidance, the department has not otherwise publicly addressed states' opt-out policies.) At the same time, the federal department can't directly dictate to states how they handle opt-out with respect to school ratings—that's ultimately up to states.

Chad Aldeman, an associate partner with Bellwether Education Partners who used to work in the Obama administration, thinks those and similar actions are appropriate. But less stringent options, such as notifying parents and the general public about low participation rates (an option not specified in the Education Department's guidance) is insufficient, Aldeman said. That's because not going beyond such a notification would leave a state's accountability system vulnerable to schools gaming their ratings, for example, by preventing some students who might perform poorly from taking exams.

And under ESSA, he said, states still have to use assessments that provide "valid, reliable, and transparent" information on student performance, something he said is impossible without high participation rates.

"There's a balance to this. There's no formula that has a magic rule for it. That's why it's on states," Aldeman said.

He also added that the federal department's warning in its guidance to states that failure to address opt-out appropriately could mean they could lose Title I funding, among other possible actions, is "pretty heavy-handed," but is within the bounds of the law and gives the 95 percent requirement real teeth.

But while a letter notifying parents about low test-participation rates would be "at the margins" of an acceptable response by states, it's still a valid statement about accountability and shouldn't be automatically dismissed, said Monty Neill, the executive director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, which opposes high-stakes testing. "I don't read any mandate other than the states have to factor it in. But what does that mean? It doesn't say anything about weighting it or making it important," Neill said, referring to ESSA.

And nothing in the new law, Neill added, would explicitly allow coercing parents into having their children take the state exams.

Warnings and Ratings

When the federal department notified 13 states about test-participation issues last year, the department also asked for the states' responses to the situation.

Rhode Island Education Commissioner Ken Wagner told the Education Department in a letter that with respect to accountability, the state would attach an "alert," or essentially a warning, to the rating for any school that failed to meet the 95 percent test-participation requirement. (That warning, however, would not mean a letter would be sent to parents about test participation.)

In addition, any school that missed the participation requirement would not be eligible to receive a "Commendable School" rating, the highest classification in the state's K-12 accountability system.

Fewer than half of Rhode Island's districts had at least 95 percent of students take the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers exams in English/language arts and math in the 2014-15 school year, according to the state.

Elliot Krieger, a spokesman for the Rhode Island department, said the state plans to apply this plan for accountability to school ratings from the 2014-15 school year, which the agency plans to release later this year. However, Krieger didn't specify that the plan will continue for ratings for school years after 2014-15.

The Rhode Island department had yet to receive a response from federal officials to its accountability plans for opt-out, Krieger said, and added, "I'm not sure that we're waiting, necessarily."

Meanwhile, Connecticut Commissioner of Education Dianna Wentzell told the federal department in a letter last month that her state will administer the SAT for its 11th graders beginning this school year, after using the Smarter Balanced test in 2014-15. Wentzell wrote that "it is anticipated that participation in the state assessment will improve significantly" for those students. (Overall, the state met the 95 percent requirement, but some districts did not.)

The switch from the Smarter Balanced test to the SAT is part of "an effort to eliminate duplicative testing, reduce overtesting, mitigate student stress and address parental concerns," a spokeswoman for the Connecticut education department, Abbe Smith, wrote in an email.

Wentzell also identified an array of responses for schools that escalate the margins by which districts that miss the 95 percent requirement grow. The most serious consequences for districts include a potential loss of some federal funding beginning in the 2016-17 school year (based on 2015-16 data), and the need for districts to submit plans on how to increase participation rates.

'May Have to Adjust'

And it's also not clear to what extent states' plans for addressing opt-outs will change once the transition from ESEA waivers to the new law takes place later this year.

Related Blog

Colorado's plan, which interim Commissioner of Education Elliott Asp outlined to the department earlier this month, would also require schools and districts to show how they would address low test participation rates. Test participation will also count in reviews of programs at Title I schools and low-performing schools under federal law.

However, in its letter to the federal department, the Colorado education agency said its strategy for incorporating test participation into accountability was part of the state's ESEA waiver, which expires Aug. 1, along with the rest of the states' waivers.

A spokeswoman for the state education department, Dana Smith, said the waiver will be replaced by a new state accountability plan, and that as this plan is developed, Colorado "may have to adjust some elements."

Vol. 35, Issue 19, Pages 17, 22

Published in Print: January 27, 2016, as States Exploring Ways to Meet Test-Participation Mandate
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