The Test Participation Penalty

I wonder how many parents have submitted a letter to opt a child out of state mandated testing (MCAS2.0)? And in the process of opting-out, were any of those parents called to discuss their choice with the school administrator? IMG_1596

According to the current Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, parents need to have a choice in a child’s education. It appears, however, that “choice” has limits.

According to state and federal government, there should be a “choice” of educational setting.  School setting is a choice, whether it is public, charter, private, or religious. That’s a good choice according to the government. Using federal funds to pay for vouchers? That’s the current federal proposal. And our government claims that that kind of choice is also a “good” choice.

However, if you exercise your parental judgement by choosing to opt your child out of long, arduous, standardized tests like MCAS 2.0 or PARCC, then your choice as a parent is questionable. The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education really does not want parents to make that choice. Why? Because in assessments, unless a significant number of students participate in those tests, the reported results may become skewed or inaccurate.

The issue of test participation rates is part of the newest federal education act, ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act). The current DESE draft of Massachusetts’ ESSA application states that:

E. Participation Rate. Describe how the State is factoring the requirement for 95 percent student participation in assessments into its system of annual meaningful differentiation of schools consistent with the requirements of 34 C.F.R. § 200.15.

A school’s summative performance level will be lowered if that school assesses less than 95% of students in the aggregate or for any subgroup that meets a minimum N size of 20.

Broken down to simpler terms, this statement means that if a group of parents decides that MCAS 2.0, the standardized test in Massachusetts, is harmful to their child, the entire school and school district could be penalized. The penalty is to lower a school’s rating (Level 1, high to Level 5, low) by one level if less than 95% of students eligible for testing participate.

Here’s a mathematical example: A Pre-K through Grade 4 school may have 500 students. The two grades that participate in state testing within that school are Grades 3 and 4. Perhaps there are 100 students in each of these grades (200 total). If the parents of 11 student request that their children be excused from MCAS 2.0, as is their parental right, then according to the regulation, the state will lower the school’s level rating by one.

I believe a new feature of the ESSA draft is that participation rates apply to subgroups of students. An example of a subgroup would  be a group of students from a given school who are also identified as English Language Learners, Students with Disabilities, or Economically Disadvantaged students.  Applying the 5% non-participation rate penalty, if there are 25 children identified as Students with Disabilities in Grades 3 and 4, and parents of as few as 2 students choose to opt them out, then the school’s level rating could be lowered.

The stakes for building and district administrators to maintain excellent school ratings are quite high, and therein lies the conflict between parental choice and the unfair penalties for participation rates. The feds bully the states, the states in turn bully the districts, and the principals and parents are caught up in a conflict of choosing what is best for students.

Parents should not have their decision as to whether or not to subject their child to standardized MCAS 2.0 testing questioned if opting-out is truly a choice. If too many opt-outs skew the test results, maybe it’s time to look at the value of the assessment.

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