Choosing to refuse

Opt-out movement gains foothold in Tennessee as more parents and students refuse state assessment

PHOTO: Provided by Anna Thorsen
Clara Thorsen writes a letter to Commissioner Candice McQueen about TNReady.

Tears rolled down Clara Thorsen’s face on Monday morning. Despite the Supergirl shirt she was wearing, the third-grader didn’t feel ready to take TNReady, the state’s new end-of-course exam.

“I feel stressed out and unhappy,” she quietly told her mom, Anna. “I just want to be home.”

Anna Thorsen felt conflicted. Clara has dyslexia, making it especially challenging to write essays by hand, a key component of the new test. Although Clara is intellectually gifted, Thorsen knew that she’d likely score below grade level because of her disability. Still, teachers and administrators at Clara’s Nashville elementary school were ready and willing to provide all the supports allowed for testing.

Thorsen opted to drop off Clara at school for Part I of the state assessment. But for Part II of the test next month, Clara will join the growing ranks of Tennessee students who are “opting out” — or refusing to take the state’s standardized test.

“We gave it a shot. We tried. But I’ve never seen my daughter this low,” Thorsen said this week. “She can’t emotionally do it again.”

"We gave it a shot. We tried. But I’ve never seen my daughter this low."Anna Thorsen, parent

While the Tennessee Department of Education can’t provide statewide numbers at this point, anecdotal evidence suggests that the opt-out wave is beginning to gain traction in Tennessee, a year after mass numbers of students refused tests in states including New York,Washington, and Colorado. 

This week, almost half of students at one Chattanooga elementary school refused to take the TNReady test. Rep. Mike Stewart, a Democrat from Nashville, opted his child out. Social media is abuzz with parents seeking guidance on how to get their child out of testing, too. And a popular Tennessee-based blog has set forth a comprehensive guide for parents called “Choose to Refuse.”

Adding to momentum is the state’s rocky rollout of this year’s new test, which has been beset by technical problems and delays, causing parents and teachers to call into question the test’s legitimacy.

State officials insist that you can’t opt out of the state’s standardized tests, which are used to make decisions about schools and teachers — and are necessary for the state to receive federal funding, as well as know which schools and students need the most support. The tests are required, emphasizes State Department of Education spokeswoman Ashley Ball.

“Given both the importance and legal obligation, our department’s policy is that parents may not refuse or opt a child out of participating in state assessments,” Ball said Tuesday.. “Except for situations where the Tennessee General Assembly has specifically provided the right to opt out in the law, such as the family life curriculum, parents and/or students may not opt out of state-mandated content or instructional programs, including assessments.”

Ball added that there is no federal law directly authorizing parents and students to skip standardized testing.

For the state and many educators, standardized assessments are a helpful tool to understand how students are progressing and to see if the state is fulfilling its responsibility to make sure kids are college-ready, and that all kids — not just students who are middle or upper-middle class and white, like many of the students refusing the test — are receiving an adequate education.

Many parents behind “opt out” say they’re not against standardized testing altogether. But they do think schools spend too much time preparing for and administering the tests. They are concerned that the tests measure test-taking skills more than knowledge. And they are critical of how this year’s scores won’t be returned until October, rendering them largely useless to teachers since students already will have started new classes by then.

“I’m not opposed to testing,” said Heather DeGaetano, whose fourth-grade daughter refused testing this week in Chattanooga. “In fact, I think testing has a useful place in our children’s education. I’m opposed to testing in this amount, and I’m opposed to testing when the results don’t mean anything.”

"I'm not opposed to testing...I'm opposed to testing in this amount, and I'm opposed to testing when the results don't mean anything."Heather DeGaetano, parent

Others view this year’s shift in state testing as a work in progress. Zack Barnes, a literacy teacher at Nashville’s Apollo Middle Prep School, wishes standardized tests gave him better information about his students. But he thinks that TNReady, which is aligned with the Common Core state standards and includes more open-ended questions, is a move in the right direction. The only way to improve it, he says, is to take it.

“Of course, we need fewer and better tests,” said Barnes, who is also an education blogger. “But it gives a great snapshot of a school. How are the schools progressing? Do they need any extra support?”

While other states have opt-out policies, Tennessee has none, meaning students who want to skip the test have to refuse the test when their teacher hands it to them — a daunting step for students who have disabilities or are inclined to follow rules. At some schools, the refusers have been permitted to read; at other schools, students have to sit quietly. One mom in Chattanooga even reported her son had to sit on his hands for the duration of the exam earlier this week.

Schools are in a tricky position when faced with students opting out. Districts are not authorized to adopt policies allowing students to refuse the test, or to offer alternate activities such as study hall or computer lab, for students whose parents refuse to have them participate in state assessments.

And because there is no set policy, every parent has had a different journey to refusing the test in behalf of a child.

DeGaetano had a community with whom to refuse the test. At the beginning of the school year, she talked to her school’s PTA president about the large amount of testing happening throughout the year. They organized a meeting to explore opting out and were surprised when about 40 parents showed up.

“It turned out there were lots of parents who weren’t feeling good about it,” DeGaetano said. “We said, ‘Oh OK. It’s not just the crazy people who complain about anything.’”

The parents talked about civil disobedience with their children and instructed them how to refuse the test. In the end, more than 200 students at Normal Park Magnet Elementary refused the test this week. The principal did not encourage the parents, but she listened to their concerns, DeGaetano says.

We felt “like there was safety in numbers,” she said.

In Knox County, Leslie Kurtz had a lonelier path. Because she began refusing the test before opt-out gained traction in Tennessee, she’s developed a reputation as a bit of an opt-out guru. Every day, she receives calls and emails asking for advice.

She’s instructed her son Rio, now in the eighth grade, to refuse tests since he was in the sixth grade. The first year he refused end-of-year testing, he had to sit and stare for hours while his classmates tested. The second year, he went to Washington, D.C., with a friend’s family. Kurtz dismissed a letter warning of truancy after he missed the testing days. In past years, standardized test scores have counted for Rio’s grades, but this year they won’t because of the delay in scoring. In years the scores have counted, Kurtz has asked teachers to print out his grades before the ‘zeros’ from state test are included.

“We’ve had many conversations about civil disobedience,” Kurtz said of her talks with her son. “He actually learned more by refusing the test then he would have by taking it.”

Though the Department of Education appears unlikely to make refusing the test easier in the near future, it made efforts last year to begin addressing teacher and parent concerns about testing.  Education Commissioner Candice McQueen convened a task force to look into complaints about over-testing. As a result of the panel’s recommendations, a bill was drafted to eliminate a set of standardized tests. And, in the in order to create a more relaxed testing atmosphere this year, the state is allowing students to read after testing and teachers are no longer required to cover their bulletin boards.

"(Tests give) a great snapshot of a school. How are the schools progressing? Do they need any extra support?”"Zack Barnes, teacher

But for many parents, that’s not enough. They want to see a steeper reduction in the time their children spend preparing for and taking standardized tests.

As in Tennessee, opt-out has largely taken root among white parents, many with advanced degrees. Both DeGaetano and Anna Thorsen are attorneys. That’s not the profile of most Tennessee public school families, more than half of whom are economically disadvantaged.

DeGaetano says she thinks seriously about those implications.

“If you’re working third shift, tracking all of this information (about testing) down on the Tennessee Department of Education website is not an easy thing to do,” she said.

She hopes ultimately that refusing the test will lead to better policies across the state. “This is about more than my kid,” she said.

Measure of Success

State ratings identify 163 Colorado schools in need of improvement

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Students in kindergarten on the first day of school at McGlone Academy.

More than 160 Colorado schools received one of the state’s two lowest ratings, making them eligible for additional assistance but also vulnerable to intervention if they don’t improve student performance.

The watch list comprises 9 percent of Colorado’s 1,800 schools and educate roughly 74,000 students, or 8.5 percent or the state’s almost 900,000 students. That means the vast majority of students in the state attend a school with one of the two higher rankings on the four-point scale.

The State Board of Education finalized the ratings Wednesday. The state gives separate district-wide ratings, which were finalized last month.

“The state’s accountability system is built on the premise that all students should receive a high quality education and graduate ready for college or careers,” Katy Anthes, Colorado’s education commissioner, said in a statement. “Our goal is to give all students a chance to excel. These designations allow us to identify struggling schools that may need more support to help students achieve their highest aspirations. And they also highlight successful schools so that other schools can learn from them.”

All public schools receive a state rating, known as the School Performance Framework report, each year. It’s based largely on student scores on the state’s English and math tests. Student growth, or how much students learn year-to-year compared to peers with similar results on state tests, carries most weight. High school graduation and dropout rates are also factored in.

Colorado Department of Education

There are four ratings: performance (the highest), improvement, priority improvement and turnaround (the lowest).

Schools and districts that have one of the lower two ratings are placed on a watch list and have five years to improve before facing state intervention. Schools on the list are eligible for grants for leadership training and help from outside consultants, but if change doesn’t come fast enough, the state could hand over control to an external manager, require conversion to a charter, or close schools.

Earlier this fall, the State Board of Education ordered the Adams 14 school district, based in Commerce City, and two schools in Pueblo in southern Colorado to turn over control to external managers after earlier intervention efforts did not produce enough improvement.

Colorado is still figuring out what effective intervention looks like and if outsiders can make a difference for students that existing leadership has not been able to achieve.

Most Colorado schools maintained the same rating they had in 2017, with 15 percent moving down at least one level and 14 percent moving up at least one level. Eighteen schools improved enough to get off the state watch list, which is often known as the “accountability clock,” some after initial state intervention last year.

Six schools are entering their eighth year on the watch list: Aurora Central High School, Adams City High School, Aguilar Junior-Senior High School in the tiny Aguilar district in southern Colorado, Hope Online Learning Academy Elementary School in Douglas County, Heroes Middle School, and Risley International Academy of Innovation, the last two both in Pueblo.

Two are entering year six: Central Elementary School in the Adams 14 district and Minnequa Elementary School in Pueblo.

Another four are entering year five, now the last year to improve before state intervention: Manual High School and Montbello Career and Technical High School in Denver, Mesa Elementary in the Montezuma-Cortez district in southwest Colorado, and EDCSD: Colorado Cyber School in Douglas County.

In the past, some schools received more time to improve because the “clock” was paused for several years as the state changed assessments. But now there are no more extensions beyond year five.

Of the state’s 42 online schools, a little more than half received one of the top two ratings, and 31 percent did not report enough data for the state to grant a rating. Colorado has more stringent regulations of online schools than many states, but there is an ongoing debate about how well these schools serve students.

About 84 percent of the state’s 247 charter schools received one of the top two ratings, compared to 89 percent of all Colorado schools. Twenty-six charter schools, or 10.5 percent, received one of the lowest two ratings.

Look up your school here:

Literacy tutors needed

Detroit enlists volunteer tutors before third-grade reading law takes effect

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

Detroit’s school district is asking the community for help getting students reading at grade level. The superintendent is hoping volunteer literacy tutors will prevent a critical mass of third-graders from being held back under the state’s tough new reading law.

“We need your help,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said, making an appeal for volunteers during a school board meeting Tuesday night. “Our teachers and our principals and our schools alone will not be able to ensure that every student is at third-grade level without your help.”

Which is why the district is working with two community advocacy groups, Keep the Vote/No Takeover and the National Action Network, to launch the Let’s Read program, geared to K-3 students. The program is slated to begin in February — less than a year before the reading law takes effect. Once it does, during the 2019-2020 school year, Michigan third-graders who aren’t reading at grade level will be held back.

In the Detroit district, where proficiency levels on state exams are extremely low, the consequences could be dire. During a community forum last week, Vitti said that the law could hold back as many as 90% of Detroit third-graders, though Michigan’s education department has yet to define what it means for a student to be reading at grade level. At the forum, though, he noted exemptions from the law for such as students with special education needs and those who speak little to no English.

The Let’s Read volunteers will be assigned to individual students based on need. They will read with the children and help them with book selections.

Helen Moore, a longtime community activist who represents the two community organizations behind the volunteer effort, urged people to sign up during the public comment period of the meeting.

“I know our students will succeed, because they’re brilliant,” Moore said. But they and their parents need help, she said.

Vitti said the volunteer cohort is one of many literacy-building efforts underway. In addition, he said that every district school will hold family literacy nights and that its Parent Academy will expand its classes that teach parents how to help their children with reading. A community-wide event to teach Detroiters about the reading law — and what they can do to help — will also be held.

Moore said the word is starting to get out about the Let’s Read program, noting: “The telephone has been ringing like crazy. And now the suburban districts want to be part of it.”

The focus, though, is on Detroit, she said.

Want to volunteer: You can fill out a form here, or call 313-873-7884.