Thursday, February 5, 2015

Opt Out Week on the Range: Day Four (Colorado and Illinois)

Posted By on Thu, Feb 5, 2015 at 6:00 PM

Today is two-states-for-the-price-of-one day, since we're approaching the end of Opt Out Week on the Range. I'm featuring a couple of states where some people have taken aggressive, activist stands against our obsession with standardized, high stakes testing.

First, Colorado. We begin last November when 5,000 seniors opted out of the recently adopted state social studies and science tests. Here's what happened at one high school in Boulder, CO.

Students protested outside Fairview High School in zero degree temperatures holding signs that read, “education not standardization.” They took turns standing outside, collecting non-perishable food items for a food bank. Inside, dozens of students were busy writing letters to state lawmakers expressing why they chose to skip the tests.

The district supported the students' right to opt out.

District officials told students if they opt out with parents’ permission, it’s considered an excused absence. If they don’t show up, it’s counted as unexcused.

“We understand they are exercising their rights on this and their feelings about it — both them and their parents,” says Boulder Valley Superintendent Bruce Messinger. “If their parents have signed an opt-out form and we respect that and we’ll go forward.”

Move forward to January, at the Colorado Board of Education.

A divided Colorado State Board of Education voted Thursday to let school districts skip a portion of new state tests this spring, ignoring warnings that the board lacked the authority and that its action could invalidate the tests.

The motion from new Republican board member Steve Durham directs the education commissioner to grant waivers to local school boards and districts that want to opt out of the first part of math and English language arts tests set for March.

But it is unclear whether the motion — approved 4-3, and not along party lines — will amount to more than a gesture.

One Democrat and three Republicans voted for the measure, showing the testing issue is controversial on both sides of the aisle. The state's Department of Education is looking into the legality of opting out. So far as I know, it hasn't reached a decision.

But, hot off the presses, in a story from yesterday, Feb. 4, the State Board of Education voted to support a bill in the legislature that would cut Colorado's ties to Common Core.

House Bill 1125 proposes repealing existing state law that binds Colorado to a consortium of states that test students using Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) tests, which were developed to mirror Common Core English and math standards. The bill asks the State Board of Education to create new curriculum standards for Colorado and select three assessment systems districts could use in place of PARCC English and math tests and Colorado Measures of Academic Success science and social studies tests. School districts would pick which of the three tests to use.

The bill also would roll back how often students take statewide tests, from every year between third and 12th grade to every year between third grade and eighth grade and once between 10th and 12th grade for math and English, which is the federal minimum. Science and social studies testing would remain once in elementary school, once in middle school and once in high school.

How will all this affect the spring testing season in Colorado? Stay tuned for further developments. Meanwhile, in Illinois . . .

Things are getting confrontational, as they tend to in Chicago, where the public schools are planning to administer the state test in about 10 percent of the schools.

The district said it will administer the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers test, or PARCC, to just 66 of its more than 600 schools as an extension of a pilot program that began last year. The rest of the schools will continue to administer NWEA-MAP and EPAS exams.

School district chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett's decision to snub PARCC, which she said was made in conjunction with the school board, could have national implications and play a role in a congressional debate over laws that created rigorous Common Core standards and a divisive system of high-stakes testing.

The Illinois State Board of Education shot back with a threat to withhold hundreds of millions of dollars if the test isn't administered to all students.

"We are directing you [Chicago Public Schools] to administer the PARCC assessment to all students except those who are specifically exempted under law. If any district does not test, ISBE will withhold its Title I funds (dollars for impoverished schools)," says the letter from Koch and state board chairman James Meeks, obtained by the Tribune. Koch and Meeks explained also that federal officials could withhold money from the state if the state didn't comply with requirements to test virtually all students.

As in Colorado, this is a work in progress. So far as I know, neither side has blinked. But a state representative from Chicago has filed a bill to allow parents to opt their children out of the exam.

“Seven other states have statutes allowing parents to opt out of their standardized testing,” [Representative Will] Guzzardi says. “Those states haven’t seen any sort of diminishment of their federal funding or anything like that, as some of the doom-and-gloom folks suggest might happen.”

Those states are California, Pennsylvania, Washington, Wisconsin, Oregon, Nebraska and Utah.

The Chicago Democrat says that under Illinois School Code, kids actually already have the right to opt out. 

“They can go up to their teacher and verbally say, ‘I don’t wanna take this test,’ and they will be excused from taking it.”

His bill would give parents a tool to request that their child not be tested, with no penalty to the teacher, school or student.

I can't verify that the seven states Guzzardi listed have opt out statutes, since I haven't looked at them carefully. But I can say that a similar opt-out bill, HB 2246, is being sponsored in Arizona by Chris Ackerley (R, LD-2).

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