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How Will the Education Department Handle Schools With High Opt-Out Rates?

As more parents choose to "opt" their children out of state standardized assessments, states have found themselves in a bit of pickle. The No Child Left Behind Act requires schools to test 95 percent of their students, or else face sanctions. 

Colorado wants to add language to its waiver from provisions of the NCLB law through the waiver-renewal process, ensuring that opt-outs don't count against a school's 95 percent participation threshold.

The state's rationale, as explained in this summary of proposed changes in its NCLB renewal request, which is due to the feds at the end of the month:

Schools and districts in Colorado are in the challenging position of balancing the requirements of state law (all students must be assessed) and honoring parent requests that their students do not participate in the state assessments. Some parents and students have reported feeling pressured to have their students participate in the assessments. Some schools and districts are frustrated by parents refusing to have their child participate in the state assessments, as it could have a negative impact on the school/district rating. The tension has been increasing in Colorado as more parent and student voices are speaking out against participating in the new state assessments.

The counterargument to that is, of course, that schools technically could persuade parents whose kids might not do so well on the tests to, well, opt out, thus bolstering their own scores. 

So how will the U.S. Department of Education handle Colorado's ask?

It's too early to say. But Deborah S. Delisle, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, made it clear Wednesday that she'll look at each state's context differently when thinking about what sort of sanctions to impose when it comes to opt-outs.

Her comments at Education Week's Leaders to Learn From event in Washington generally addressed what would happen at the state level, not with individual schools.

In terms of Colorado, "One of the things we would judge by is, what has Robert Hammond, the state chief done, to get [folks] to [go ahead with testing]," Delisle said. "Let's say he sent a letter that said, 'oh just opt-out. It's not a problem, we'll deal with it, no ramifications.' We would deal with that differently then if Robert Hammond goes around to every district saying, 'Hey look, [this] is federal law, you've gotta comply,' and everything in between."  

And, particularly if it's more affluent districts or parents doing the opting-out, she said, "we may look at something other than [withholding] Title I" money, which goes to help low-income students. The department's intention, she said, is "not to harm those kids who may, in fact, not even be in the schools where the opt-out took place." (Check out a live clip here. The question, and Delisle's answer comes a little before minute 43.)

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