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Blur Challenge Checkmate Chess Board Game Battle
In Minnesota, the push for and against standardized testing in the state’s public schools is starting to resemble a high-stakes game of chess. Just weeks ago, the state’s Office of the Legislative Auditor, which provides nonpartisan government oversight, released a report examining the use (and misuse) of federally mandated tests in K-12 schools across the state. Among the report’s key findings? The number of students and families choosing to opt out of annual tests in reading, math and science has “grown dramatically in the last few years.”
The auditor’s report states that opt-out numbers are so high among Minneapolis high school students, for example, that whatever data is being gathered from the yearly Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments in math, science and reading—at the secondary level—should not be “used to estimate overall student performance, student growth, or achievement gaps.” The testing rebellion has reached the tipping point, apparently, with the report warning that it is “no longer appropriate to endorse the test results as a valid measure of district-wide learning.”
This realization does not appear to be sitting well with some state legislators. Instead of trying to figure out why so many students and families are now choosing to opt out, a handful of Republican representatives recently introduced a bill designed to financially punish districts where less than 95 percent of students participate in the annual standardized tests. The 95 percent threshold is a holdover from the 2001 No Child Left Behind law, which required this level of participation in test-based accountability schemes for the nation’s public schools.
In 2015, President Obama signed the long-awaited revision of No Child Left Behind into law, renaming it the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Many observers hoped that the ESSA would break down the growing reliance on standardized tests. But those hopes were dashed. The ESSA, while opening the door to more local input in accountability systems, still requires states to administer standards-based tests every year in grades three through eight and once in high school.
The ESSA also maintains the 95 percent participation requirement. To make sure the testing expectation is crystal clear, the Department of Education sent letters to states with higher opt-out rates in late 2015. The letter, obtained by The Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog, explicitly details how states can be punished—financially and otherwise—for failing to hit the 95 percent participation rate mandate. (The group Fair Test, which advocates for less standardized testing, has argued that the government still has a limited ability to impact school funding based on opt-out numbers.)
The problem for states is that the opt-out cat is already out of the bag. And so many people are opting their kids out of tests that the data collected from the state tests may become unusable. What then?
In Minnesota, Republican state senator Eric Pratt recently addressed the topic of opt-outs through a bill he co-authored. The bill, Pratt explained to colleagues on March 17, is a “simple” one, designed to link education funding increases to the number of students tested in various local districts and charter schools.
If Pratt’s bill passes in Minnesota, districts with opt outs greater than 5 percent would receive less state funding the following year. “We’re seeing a number of opt outs in our school districts,” Pratt has informed his fellow legislators. Tying funding to test participation rates will help districts “promote the MCA” tests, and limiting opt outs will also put Minnesota in better “compliance with the Every Student Succeeds Act.” With a slightly chagrined smile, Pratt insisted that his bill is not an attempt to squash parental opt-out rights, but rather a way to encourage more students to take the tests.