State laws unclear when families opt out of tests

Some states allow families to opt out for religious or disability reasons, while others mandate tests but have no consequences for non-participation
By: | Issue: May, 2015
April 22, 2015

Murky state policies leave administrators in the lurch as more parents opt their children out of Common Core testing, according to a March report from the Education Commission of the States.

In many states, education departments remain silent on how districts should handle parent requests for opting students out of PARCC or Smarter Balanced testing, according to the report “Assessment Opt-Out Policies: State responses to parent pushback.”

Some states allow families to opt out for specific religious or disability reasons, while others mandate assessments but have no consequences in place for students who do not participate, the report found.

“Schools are stuck between a rock and a hard place, wanting to help parents have control over what happens to their kids, but also wanting to meet state and federal testing requirements,” says Julie Rowland, a researcher for the Education Commission of the States and one of the report’s authors. “Generally, states are discouraging opting out or are emphasizing that participating in testing is mandatory.”

Varying legislation

State laws in California and Utah allow parents to opt their children out of state assessments for any reason. Legislation introduced recently in New Jersey and North Dakota would set the same policy. Oregon and Pennsylvania excuse students from state testing to accommodate religious beliefs, though many parents are using this to opt out for other reasons, according to published accounts.

Laws in some states, including Arkansas and Texas, explicitly require all students to take state assessments.

The states that do allow students to skip testing often require written consent from a parent, Rowland says.

Few state departments of education give parents and the public information about opting out. Ohio and Oregon are the only states to clearly outline the purpose of their state assessments and the potential consequences of not taking them, the ECS report found. For example, in Ohio, third graders who do not take state tests may be held back, and high school students must take the tests to graduate.

Common Core testing

By March, more than 2 million PARCC tests were completed online in the consortium’s 11 states and the District of Columbia. The consortium expects a total of 5 million tests to be completed by the end of the school year. The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium began delivering tests to 10 million students in 17 states this spring.

The total number of students opting out of standardized tests nationwide remains unknown. Reports have varied from a handful in some areas, including Philadelphia, to about 60,000 in New York state last year.

Standardized testing leads to a loss of deeper student learning and saps schools of financial resources, says Tim Slekar, a leader of the United Opt Out movement in Wisconsin and dean of the school of education at Edgewood College. The nonprofit United Opt Out National formed in 2011 with five people. Today, its Facebook page has over 15,000 members.

“We’ve seen the numbers swell this year with the Common Core-related testing,” Slekar says. “There’s an educational awakening amongst parents, driven by recognizing the loss of instructional time.”

Administrators can examine state opt-out laws and provide parents with guidance, Slekar says.

An increase in clarity in many state policies and from the U.S. Department of Education is likely coming soon, Rowland adds.