Opting in, opting out: Schools begin Smarter Balanced assessment tests

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Opting in, opting out: Schools begin Smarter Balanced assessment tests
By Erin Timony, The State Journal

When Spring Valley High School junior Carri Pertee's parents submitted an opt-out form to exempt her from taking the West Virginia General Summative Assessment about a month ago, it was a quiet decision with no argument from the school.

However, word slowly spread among parents and students that opting out of the test was possible. More students began presenting opt-out forms to the school, and many parents said that's when the school began to push back.

As more schools put the tests on their calendars, more families have crossed it off, and discussion over the options for opting out have grown to a statewide crescendo.

The General Summative Assessment is the Common Core-aligned state assessment developed through the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. The tests were administered at Spring Valley the week of April 13.

Local Policy

Pertee said school officials seem to have changed their tune at Spring Valley since she initially submitted her opt-out form.

“At first it was OK ... and then it wasn't,” she said.

According to State Superintendent of schools Michael Martirano, there is no opt-out provision.

“The way (the West Virginia Department of Education) interprets it, there is no provision for our young people to opt out,” he said.

While there is no specific provision to opt out, there is nothing in code that mandates students take the test, either.

General Counsel for the State Department of Education Heather Hutchins said what is clear is that Mountain State schools are required to administer a statewide assessment system.

“The laws in West Virginia state that we administer a statewide student assessment,” she said. “No, it doesn't specifically say students have to take it. ... It's an issue of semantics.”

While Martirano said he has “clearly communicated across the state that testing is an expectation,” the lack of any mandate requiring students to take the assessment has made any potential repercussions for opting out a “local policy issue,” according to WVDE Executive Director of Communication Liza Cordiero.

A Different Approach

While Pertee said she and others who opted out were merely confined to the auditorium during the week of testing, superintendent of Harrison County Mark Manchin said Harrison County is taking a different approach.

“We're not allowing (students) to opt out,” he said. “(Opting out) will be treated as a disciplinary matter.”

Not taking the test in Harrison County will be viewed as insubordination, punishable by suspension, in-school suspension or other disciplinary measures, Manchin said, and principals have been given broad authority to administer permissible punishments for opting out.

However, in his discussions with Martirano regarding opting out, Delegate Michael Folk, R-Berkeley, said Martirano told him if a student respectfully refused to take the assessment based on a parent's instructions and did not misbehave, there could be no repercussions to the student. During an informational meeting in Harrison County in December 2013, former Superintendent of Schools James Phares also said students could opt out of state assessments with no penalty.

The testing window for Harrison County is April 27 through nearly the end of the year, with the last day of school being June 9, Manchin said. The testing window is the time during which the assessment must be administered to students and completed. Manchin said it will take about five weeks to test every student.

Spring Valley High School scheduled an assembly for students who opted out of the test after the number was rumored to have jumped to about 200. Wayne County Assessment Director John Waugaman did not return phone calls by press time to verify the number of students who asked to opt out.

Parents' Rights

During the assembly, Pertee said Waugaman told students their “parents didn't have the right to opt them out of (the assessments) because of being in a public school setting.” Pertee said parents and citizens pay a hefty price tag for public schools with their tax dollars, so parents should have the final say in their children's educational decision-making. Pertee also said the opt-out dialogue goes beyond the national discussion and is ultimately a parents' rights issue.

She said some education officials have said students are opting out in an attempt to make the school look bad, but she disagrees.

Pertee said she stressed during the assembly that nothing in state code explicitly requires students to take the state assessments, but she said school officials at the assembly responded that they had to “read between the lines.”

“Parents shouldn't have to read between the lines with their child's education,” she said.

Opting Out is Not New

Education officials and proponents of the Common Core-aligned assessment say students and parents can't pick and choose from an education system the bits and pieces they prefer. They also compare opting out of the assessment to opting out of taking subject-specific tests and specific subjects.

While the opt-out numbers may have increased with the onset of the General Summative Assessment, the act of opting out of state assessments, a part of the educational system, has occurred in the past.

“There have been individuals who, for a variety of reasons, chose not to have their child participate; same way they would like to approach certain topics of instruction based upon a variety of reasons,” Martirano said.

One example of a topic of instruction parents pull their kids from is sex ed. Some West Virginia parents also have said they opted their children out of taking the Westest with no problem. The General Summative Assessment replaces the previously used Westest. Last year was the last year to administer Westest, Martirano said.

Participation Rate

While there is no graduation requirement to take the assessment and no child will fail a particular grade by not taking it, what could be affected if large numbers of students opt out of the test is the school participation rate.

Currently, West Virginia schools are moving toward an A-F grading system. If an individual school doesn't reach a 95 percent participation rate, Martirano said the school's grade would automatically be lowered by one grade level. If the participation rate was 90 percent or lower, that school would automatically receive an F.

According to Cordiero, the West Virginia Office of Education Performance Audits will verify the school grades and present the data to the West Virginia Board of Education for approval based on the metrics and their review process.