Why You Can Boycott Standardized Tests Without Fear of Federal Penalties to Your School (Updated January 2017)

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) authorizes states to allow parents to opt their children out of exams if a state or district allows it. Eight states already have laws allowing opt outs. New federal regulations ignore this provision, but states should not.

ESSA also says that at least 95% of students must be included when calculating school scores, and must factor the participation requirement into state accountability plans. If more than 5% of students do not take the test, their non-scores count as zeroes. This would lower a school’s average score and could affect the school’s ranking within the state.

ESSA regulations issued by the U.S. Department of Education (DoE) simply require schools and districts with less than 95% participation to implement an “improvement plan” aimed at boosting participation. The regulations do not require any specific action or sanction.

The federal government has never penalized a state, district or school for failing to test enough of its students. Due to the successful 2015 New York State opt out campaign, hundreds of districts had less than 95% participation. USDoE said it had no plans to penalize districts or schools by withholding funds. It did send letters in 2016 to some states informing them they had to act to increase test-taking, which is what ESSA regulations now require.

Parents and educators should not fear that the federal government will financially penalize their schools if many students boycott standardized tests.At the same time, the testing reform movement should counter any state proposals to punish districts or schools for low participation. Some states, including Massachusetts and Delaware, have policies to lower a school’s ranking if too few students take the test. On the other hand, Louisiana put a one-year moratorium on any consequences for schools with high refusal rates. Activists should push their states to make it clear that parents may opt their children out without penalties. No state should take stronger steps than to tell districts to try to improve participation.

As always, the best response to government threats to the test resistance movement is to build even bigger, stronger opt-out campaigns and focus their clout on policy makers.For more information, see http://www.fairtest.org/get-involved/opting-out. And for the relevant language in the law and regulations, see http://www.fairtest.org/federal-law-and-regulations-opting-out-under-essa.

January 2017

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