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Student testing opt-outs spark debate

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Student testing opt-outs spark debate
By Samuel Speciale, The Charleston Daily Mail

Pushback from school officials after hundreds of Wayne County parents attempted to opt their children out of their end-of-year assessments last week has sparked a civil liberties debate, causing many to question whether or not ultimate authority over public education lies with the state.

While opting out is not a recent development in West Virginia, attitudes toward testing have changed since the introduction of new assessments and federal mandates that schools must assess at least 95 percent of students to meet adequate yearly progress goals.

“It’s turning into total chaos, and it’s ruining student-teacher-parent relationships,” said Warren McComas, coordinator for the Cabell-Wayne Campaign for Liberty, a local chapter of a larger, nonprofit Tea Party organization founded by former Texas Congressman Ron Paul.

While McComas doesn’t have children in the public school system, he’s orchestrated opposition to student testing in Wayne County.

Resistance to what teachers unions call “high-stakes testing” and what anti-Common Core groups call “psychological profiling” has gained momentum despite education departments across the country asserting that student assessments are vital to improving public education and not used to collect private data.

Arguments bubbled over last week when about 200 Spring Valley High School students turned in forms indicating they would not be taking the Smarter Balanced Assessment, the test the state Department of Education will issue this spring in place of the West Virginia Education Standards Test.

Multiple calls to the school as well as the Wayne County Board of Education office and Superintendent Sandra Pertee were not returned by press time Sunday. A recent audit of the school system found that its central office lacked organization, among many other policy violations.

Liza Cordeiro, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education, however, acknowledged the situation but did not say if state Superintendent Michael Martirano would issue a directive that would require students to take the test.

He may not have to if reason sides with the law.

State code, as well as 10-year-old federal directives tied to education funding, demand students be tested each year.

“The bottom line is that under West Virginia law, we are required to administer assessments,” Cordeiro said. “If we are required to test, students are required to take them.”

Parents across the state do not agree and point to past school officials like former state Superintendent Jim Phares who said in 2013 that parents have the right to refuse testing.

McComas questions the shift in opinion.

“The department just wants to nip this in the bud,” McComas said, adding that he thinks an increase in opt-outs has prompted school officials to change position. “They’re just saying this to get around it.”

While there are no state laws or school board policies that give parents legal authority to opt their children out of the required test, parents are claiming the absence of a ruling and past precedence gives them leverage.

“They can opt out,” McComas said. “They have in previous years and had no problem.”

Opting out of required testing isn’t an isolated issue in West Virginia. Parents across the country have come out against assessments. More than 100,000 New York public school students are expected to opt out this year.

The fight over student assessments is “unplowed ground,” said Bob Schaeffer, public education director for the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a nonprofit that monitors assessment policies across the country.

“Policymakers are making things up as they go,” he said, adding that most states do not have laws governing assessments opt-outs.

“Assessment policy is rarely about education,” he added. “It’s all political and about who has clout.”

Some Wayne County parents would agree.

After a mass opt-out at Spring Valley High last week, Wayne County school officials called a special assembly with students to address concerns with the test.

At that meeting, parents claim John Waugaman, the county’s assessment director, told students that their parents’ decision to opt them out of the test was not legal.

Audio of that meeting was provided to the Daily Mail by a parent living in Huntington.

In that recording, Waugaman said students enrolled in a public institution are bound by its curriculum.

A student later asked if their parents have the legal authority to opt them out.

“No,” Waugaman said. “The law states that if they enroll you in public education, these are the guidelines. That’s all I’m sharing with you.”

He then told students to inform their parents of “what the law says about being a public education student.”

“I am telling you that you do not have the option to opt out of assessments,” he went on to say. “That means when you come to school and it’s your turn to assess, you have to go in and assess.”>

Waugaman also did not respond to multiple calls from the Daily Mail.

Students were sent home with a letter outlining state code’s requirements for public education. That letter also included a section explaining the reason for assessments and why they are important.

In short, the letter said assessments guide instruction and help teachers create lesson plans that target weaknesses or strong points in a student’s understanding.

In her explanation of student assessments, Cordeiro agreed.

“To strip away that piece and say you don’t want to participate, that’s not a good public education system,” she said.

“The parent is the ultimate decision maker in their children’s education,” she went on to say. “But this is an expectation of the public school system.”

McComas said assessment opposition in Wayne County originally was about the test itself and its ties to the controversial Common Core education standards.

“When they came in and said we have no right to opt out — that assembly turned this into a parental rights issue.”

County and state officials have yet to rule whether or not opt out students will ultimately be forced to take the test.

Should the county or state Department of Education crackdown on opt out families, civil disobedience can be expected, McComas said.

“They can’t force them to take it,” he said, adding that he expects many parents would either not send their children to school or direct them not to take the test.

All of this may soon become a moot point as Congress works its way through reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. By passing the Every Child Achieves Act, Congress would scale back federal oversight and give states more flexibility. It also would do away with many provisions in No Child Left Behind, which required states to have accountability systems tied to mandatory testing.

By adopting Common Core in 2010, West Virginia and about 40 other states were granted waivers to those rules, though state departments of education must still report annual school progress in assessment results.

West Virginia’s testing window spans April 5 to June 24, but most schools only need three or four weeks to assess students. Counties and individual schools work out and set their own testing schedules during that time frame.

It remains to be seen whether or not opt-out students will be required to take the tests by the cutoff date.