Administrators respond to Common Core opt-out requests

It remains unclear how widespread the opt-out movement is across the nation
By: | Issue: June, 2015
May 15, 2015

Millions of students took Common Core tests this springÑand while it was business as usual in many districts, the spreading opt-out movement left some administrators caught between concerned parents and state requirements.

The largest opt-out numbers are from New York, where by mid-April over 177,000 students had refused to take Common Core math and ELA testsÑup from about 65,000 students last year, according to a report from New York State Allies for Public Education.

“Parents are expressing frustration and the sense that these tests are not about their kids or good for their kids,” says Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the nonprofit American Enterprise Institute. “Whether it’s a product of circumstances in New York or a canary in a more general coal mine, nobody knows yet.”

Meanwhile, technical issues in Montana, Nevada, North Dakota and other states led some schools to suspended Smarter Balanced exams. The company that administered the tests said its servers could not accommodate the number of students who went online to take the exams, according to published accounts.

This may add another headache for states using scores for accountability, Hess says.

Movement growth

It remains unclear how widespread the opt-out movement is across the nation, but reports from Colorado, Florida, Oregon and Pennsylvania have made headlines in recent months. In New Jersey, an estimated 15 percent of high school juniors opted out of the tests this year.

Administrators in Bloomfield School District in the northern part of the state saw more than 300 of the district’s 6,222 students refuse PARCC exams this spring. In October, the district board of education was the first in the state to pass a resolution allowing students who opt out to do other work in a separate classroom while their classmates are taking the test.

Technology problems

Technical issues in more than a dozen states led some schools to suspend PARCC and Smarter Balanced exams in April. Testing was shut down completely in some schools in Colorado, Nevada and North Dakota.

An ongoing series of technological difficulties in Montana, including slow servers, prompted state officials to declare in April that statewide testing is voluntary this year.

The company that administered the exams said its servers could not accommodate the number of students who came online to take the exams, according to published accounts.

Some 150 other New Jersey school systems have since followed this example, says Bloomfield Superintendent Salvatore Goncalves.

“The board was adamant we did not want ‘sit and stare,'” a policy used in some districts that requires students who opt out of tests to stay in the same classroom and sit quietly idle, Goncalves says. “We told parents to do due diligence and make a very serious decision regarding having their child opt out of PARCC.”

Bloomfield provided five workshops for parents to discuss state testing and assessments. The district website includes a page with information on testing and opting out.

Parents who refuse to allow their child to participate in PARCC must submit a written statement to the building principal prior to the start of testing. Each parent must meet with the principal, and the conversation is documented and sent to the superintendent.

Students who attend school during testing even after opting out are marked present, and stay in a room separate from testingÑusually the libraryÑto read or work quietly.

So far, no consequences exist for opting out of PARCC in New Jersey. Goncalves makes sure to tell parents that in the future, the PARCC test may be used as a prerequisite for other programs, such as advanced courses.

Tips for administrators

In many states, education departments remain silent on how districts should handle opt-out requests, according to a March report from the Education Commission of the States.

Hess offers the following tips for administrators who are navigating testing pushback:

Use test data for all students, not just those who are below proficient. “We need to show how we are using this to educate each child better,” Hess says.
Explain the benefits of testing. “Don’t tell parents ‘It’s the right thing to do’ or ‘The state requires us to do it.’ Sit down with parents, listen to their concerns, and explain why it is good for their child,” Hess says.
Make the testing reality more clear. “Share examples of a child who was overlooked in school and explain how tests helped recognize what they needed,” Hess says. Administrators can also talk to parents who feel tests or test prep are taking too much instructional time away from students. “This can help find more constructive solutions,” Hess says, “than you get when it’s people engaged in heated Twitter wars.”