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Inside ESSA Plans: How Do States Want to Handle Testing Opt-Outs?

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Parents who opted their children out of state exams in recent years became the focal point of major education debates in the country about the proper roles of testing, the federal government, and achievement gaps. Now, under the Every Student Succeeds Act, states have a chance to rethink how they handle testing opt-outs.

So how are states responding in their ESSA plans they submitted to the federal government? In short, it's all over the place, an Education Week review of the ESSA plans shows.

Keep this in mind: ESSA requires that students who opt out of those mandatory state tests must be marked as not proficient on those tests. Those not-proficient scores will in turn, obviously, impact accountability indicators. So while some states highlight this as their approach to handling testing opt-outs, it's really no more than what the law requires. 

But there's also this touchy issue: Whether states will lower a school's final rating directly because it missed the law's threshold of testing 95 percent of eligible students. (Remember, not all states are assigning final, summative scores to schools separate from ESSA's mandatory categories.) 

Here are the states where there would be a direct impact on final school scores due to missing that 95 percent threshold:

  1. Alaska
  2. Connecticut
  3. Iowa
  4. Massachusetts
  5. Mississippi
  6. New Mexico
  7. Ohio
  8. Oklahoma
  9. Rhode Island
  10. Vermont
  11. Wyoming

Even within that group, there's some variation. Alabama, for example, wouldn't lower a school's overall rating the first year that it missed the 95 percent threshold. New Mexico's approach, meanwhile, is pretty direct: Any school missing the threshold would have its A-F letter grade knocked down by one letter. 

A few states warn about increasing penalties of some kind if a school misses the 95 percent participation rate for several years, although it's not always clear what those penalties would be. 

Many states would require schools with lower-than-required participation rates due to opt-out to be "flagged" in some way and to come up with a plan for addressing the issue. 

Finally, let's look at the opt-out plans in Colorado, New Jersey, and New York. Those are three states where opt-out has attracted a relatively notable following in recent years.

  1. Colorado schools that miss the 95 percent participation threshold must create a plan to address low participation rates. They also have to distribute information to the public about the tests. 
  2. New Jersey schools missing the mark would have all students who opted out scored as nonproficient. Again, that's what ESSA requires. 
  3. New York schools missing the mark would have to come up with a plan to address the situation. More specifically, schools in the bottom would not only have to come up with plans, but those plans would have to get approved by the state. In addition, the state's "N"-size (wonk speak for the minimum number of students at a school for that subgroup of students to be included in accountability measures) for test participation is 40, while for all other indicators the N-size is 30. 

Remember that ESSA technically requires all eligible students to take state exams in English/language arts and math. But sanctions are supposed to kick in when the 95 percent threshold isn't met by schools. 

We'll update this post as the few states that haven't yet submitted their ESSA plans do so. If you think we missed something about any state's plan, let us know.

Photo: Meredith Barber, a Penn Valley, Penn., psychologist, decided in 2015 that her 10-year-old daughter Gabrielle Schwager would not take the state assessments that year. (Matt Slocum/AP)


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