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opt out movement

11 Jul The Student Assessment Opt Out Movement

By Anna Murphy, Rubicon International

When we receive student assessment data, we begin crunching numbers from spreadsheets. RIT scores, growth measurements, proficiency levels, quintiles, student subgroups, and more will be on our mind. But, what happens if groups of students—or in some cases the majority—aren’t participating in the tests? With growing numbers opting out of standardized tests, schools and districts are now having to consider this when analyzing test data.

Student Opt Out Movement

A study from Columbia University cited the 6 biggest reasons parents gave for opting their students out of tests were:

  • “I oppose using students’ performance on standardized tests to evaluate teachers” (36.9 percent)
  • “standardized tests force teachers to teach to the test” (33.8 percent)
  • “I oppose the growing role of corporations in schools” (30.4 percent)
  • “standardized tests take away too much instructional time” (26.5 percent)
  • “I oppose the Common Core State Standards” (25.8 percent)
  • “I oppose the privatization of schools” (16.0 percent)

The comprehensive study concluded that, “Most of these motivations/reasons reflect a progressive critique of the negative consequences of standardized testing on schools and the role of the private sector in public education.”

The opt out movement gained momentum in the last half decade with growing resistance to both mandated annual testing and school reform. In this blog post, we are going to address four relevant questions about the opt out movement:

1. What are the federal and state laws governing standardized test and opt out movements?

ESSA, the Every Student Succeeds Act, allows parents to opt students out of state standardized testing for any reason, and this trend is definitively on the rise. However, states are federally mandated to have at least 95 percent student participation in annual assessments. This law, though, is murky because it remains up to the state to determine the consequence if the 95 percent threshold isn’t met. For example, in New York—a state that bars exemptions—20 percent of NY students opted out of standardized test in 2015. To counter low testing rates, New York aimed to revamp the state’s test and forge meaningful conversation with parents and educators. The following year, opt out rates grew to 21 percent.

Five states currently allow students to opt out of state standardized tests: Oregon, California, Utah, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania and five states allow parents to refuse tests: Washington, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Minnesota, Maine. The difference between opting out and refusing is that the former guarantees no consequences while the latter does not bar students from repercussions (e.g. advancing to the next grade level, graduating, etc.)

Still, the majority of states bar opting out of state assessments.  Interestingly, these states tend to have a higher opt out rate (85.7 percent) compared to those that permit it (73.2 percent).

2. Who is opting out?

Opt out rates vary greatly. For example, at the state level, in California in 2015, 0.61 percent of students opted out versus a 20 percent opt out rate in New York. At the same time, across the state of New York, opt out rates vary. In some counties, nearly 90 percent of students opt out, while others have 50 percent and some are even in the single digits.

The large majority of people who opt out are white, middle class, college educated, and liberal, while ELL’s, students with special needs, and those in poorer school districts were more likely to take the test. That said, the opt out movement is spreading in popularity across socio-economic boundaries. The Washington post found,

“Ninety-seven percent of the more than 1,000 students who attend Westbury Middle School in Nassau County are black or Latino, and 81 percent are economically disadvantaged.  On Tuesday, 50 percent of those students were opted out of the tests by their parents. Last year, the number was 2 percent.” Read about why here.

Moreover, it is difficult to speak generally about student opt out rates in the United States.

3. How do opt outs affect student data?

Schools and districts with high opt out rates face the challenge of navigating already convoluted assessment data and making meaning from limited results. Especially in schools or districts with high opt out rates, it is important for administrators and teachers to understand the limitations of the data and change the questions they ask of it. For example, instead of offering a holistic depiction of overall student performance, the data may instead be geared more toward specific subgroups, allowing for testing data to inform scaffolding and differentiation.

4. How does the opt out movement affect instruction?

Studies do not address this specific question, likely because it is so variable. That said, a potential for the opt out movement to influence instruction exists. For one, if a teacher knows a student will be opting out, then they may be less likely to concern themselves with the learning of that student, especially if their evaluation as a teacher rests on student assessment data. On the other hand, teachers in a district or school with a high opt out rate may also be more likely to focus on non-tested subjects. Additionally, if teachers are using test results to inform their instruction, their adjustments may be skewed as they do not have data on students that are opting out. Ultimately, the result the opt out movement has on instruction is likely contingent on the general rate of opt outs in the school or district as well as on the teachers or schools’ general approach to assessments.

The opt out movement is changing the testing landscape. As the opt out movement persists, it is paramount to understand how student testing data is changing as a result of this shift. While results have yet to be officially released for 2017, it will be interesting to study the rates of opt outs and the ways in which the amounts of and demographics of students are shifting.

Learn about our new product, Pleiades, which bridges student assessment data with curriculum!

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