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Report: State Policies Largely Unclear on Testing Opt-Out Policies, Consequences

As states begin using new assessments aligned to the Common Core State Standards, most recently in New Jersey and New Mexico, one question has become increasingly urgent: What do states' laws and policies say about parents opting their students out of these exams?

The answer, in many cases, is unclear, according to a new study released by the Education Commission of the States. My colleague Catherine Gewertz went over the report yesterday as she also detailed news stories about opt-outs in New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere. Karla Scoon Reid also highlighted the report over at K-12 Parents and the Public. I had a few more things on my mind, so I decided to call ECS researcher Julie Rowland, one of the authors of the study. She told me that among the states she looked at, Arkansas and Texas are the two that mostly clearly prohibit parents from opting their students out of mandated exams.

Rowland also told me that states that bar opt-outs might be relying on the federal No Child Left Behind law, which requires schools to demonstrate that at least 95 percent of their students participated in statewide exams. 

But what about consequences for students who skip out on these tests? It can be hard to find clear examples of these across states. Rowland pointed to Ohio as a state where the education department has outlined potential ramifications for students if they opt out of exams. Here are a few possible consequences for students if they opt out in Ohio, according to ECS:

• Third graders may be retained. The state requires demonstration of reading proficiency before promotion to 4th grade.

• Opting out may affect high school graduation. Passing high school assessments is one of the state's graduation requirements.

• English-language learners may be delayed or prevented from exiting the English development program.

For New Mexico, ECS has this to report: "Students who refuse to take the test, with the exception of those who receive a state medical exemption, count against the school for A-F School Grades. Although alternative methods are identified, the state requests that students demonstrate competency in the five core subject areas through completion of the accountability assessment in order to meet graduation requirements."

But in general, Rowland said many states don't spell out what might happen to students if they opt out.

But official state policies on opting out vary,  and in many cases apear to be nonexistent. Rowland told me that ECS' report wasn't intended to be exhaustive. In Kansas, "opt-out issues are handled at the local level," she said. (Rowland pointed out that districts can in many cases pursue their own policies when it comes to handling students who opt out.) Nevada parents were allowed to opt their students out of field tests for state assessments in 2013 (before field tests of the Smarter Balanced tests were conducted), but the report states there's no further information from the state about opt-outs. And ECS could not locate relevant information about opt-out policies or laws for Alabama, Alaska, Georgia, Maine, Montana, and West Virginia.

"This is such a new issue, you could easily see how all of these policies are constantly evolving," Rowland told me.

And here's a related blast from the past: In 2004, the U.S. Department of Education increased the flexibility for schools regarding that 95-percent policy by allowing states to calculate "average participation rates for a given school over a two- or three-year period if the school misses the federal threshold in its most recent testing," as Erik Robelen reported in EdWeek at the time. When then-Secretary Rod Paige made that change, Robelen reported that the participation threshold posed a "significant challenge in some states."

Read the full ECS report below:

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