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Oregon Opt-Out Bill Could Lead to Loss of Federal Dollars, Ed. Dept. Warns

By Alyson Klein — June 09, 2015 2 min read
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Have you been wondering how the U.S. Department of Education would respond if a state passed a law that made opting out of state tests easier, both for parents and schools?

Oregon may be about to provide a test case. The state’s House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved a bill in April that would inform parents twice a year of their right to exempt children from standardized tests.

And the legislation would also allow schools to calculate two sets of ratings for state-level accountability purposes. One rating would penalize a school for having lots of opt-outs, but the other wouldn’t.

This could be a problem, though, as far as the feds are concerned.

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 requires schools to test 95 percent of their students, or they are automatically labeled as failing to meet achievement targets. The reason? The NCLB law’s authors were concerned that schools could discourage students who might perform poorly on standardized tests, including English-language learners and students in special education, from taking the assessments in the first place.

In fact, if Oregon goes ahead and passes the bill, it could stand to lose $140 million in federal funding, according to a letter and email sent May 27 to the deputy state schools chief, Rob Saxton, from Deborah S. Delisle, the assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education.

Here’s a snippet from the email:

The text of the Oregon bill currently under consideration, proactively encouraging parents to opt students out of assessments and failing to hold districts and schools accountable if they fall below 95% participation, increases the likelihood that Oregon will not meet its obligations under the law and [could] incur enforcement action.

(Big hat tip to the Oregonian‘s Betsy Hammond for being the first to report on the letter.)

Oregon, like many other states, is switching assessments this year to the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortia tests, which are aligned to the Common Core State Standards and are considered to be more rigorous than the state’s previous test.

Hammond quotes an Oregon Department of Education spokeswoman as saying: “We see the opt-out bill the same way the U.S. Department of Education does. Oregon may fall below 95 percent participation rates this year, and with this bill in effect, the percentage of opts-out will grow in each ensuing year. ... We believe we are likely to see enforcement actions when that happens.”

It doesn’t sound like the bill’s sponsor, Lew Frederick, is taking the department’s warning particularly seriously.

“Sanctioning a state for making reasonable public school policy would not be good for the long-term credibility of the federal role” in education, he told the Oregonian.

This isn’t the first time the Education Department has dealt with the opt-out issue. A number of Smarter Balanced states, including Montana, ran into major technical difficulties with the exams, leading to a higher than expected opt-out rates in those places, too. The department also outlined steps it can take with opt-out states here. And the administration has sent letters detailing the consequences of opt-outs to states, including New Jersey, Alaska, and West Virginia.

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