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Florida, Illinois Issue Warnings About Testing Opt-Outs

Don't even think about it. That's what Illinois and Florida are saying to school districts and parents who are planning to opt out of state-mandated standardized tests.

Exhibit A in this development comes from Chicago, where the Tribune reports on a stern letter issued by the Illinois State Board of Education. In a letter to school districts written late last week, Superintendent Christopher Koch warns that they risk losing hundreds of millions in state and federal funding if they don't administer the PARCC exam in all schools as scheduled.

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"We are directing you 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 we reported recently, Chicago announced that it would give PARCC in only about 10 percent of its schools, citing concerns about technological readiness, among other things. While the state officials' letter is clearly, though tacitly, aimed at Chicago, it's also clear that it was intended to create second thoughts in any district considering a similar move.

In Florida, Commissioner Pam Stewart wrote a letter saying that students must take the state's standardized test, and that districts and teachers could face punishments if they encourage or allow them to skip it.

Her letter last week focused on the growing movement by parents to "opt out," or keep their children from taking the test. But it also tackled questions about teachers' and districts' roles in opt-outs. It was a response to state lawmakers' questions about state policy and rules on opting out.

"State law requires students to participate in the state assessment system; therefore, there is no opt-out clause or process for students to opt out or for parents to opt their children out," Stewart wrote, noting exceptions for students with serious medical conditions or some special-education students.

She also said that "laws, rules, and precedents established by prior legal decisions and/or orders establish a foundation to support that certain willful opt-out behaviors may warrant disciplinary action against an educator's certificate."

District leaders would be obligated to report to the state as an "act of misconduct" any teacher who refuses to give a state test, she said.

More and more, we're seeing clashes as parents, teachers, or districts stake out their turf and refuse some or all of the scheduled assessments. It's forcing districts and states to clarify what their rules are on testing, and, in an increasing number of instances, call for cutbacks to assessment.

And many see the growing pushback on testing as a key source of fuel for Congress' own debate about assessment, as it gets started on a long-overdue rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, better known in its current incarnation as No Child Left Behind.

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