With up to 80 percent of students refusing to take federally mandated tests in some districts, politicians and education policymakers are paying attention to the national opt-out movement.
A survey conducted this month by the consulting firm Whiteboard Advisors revealed that education policy and political “insiders” think that the opt-out movement will likely sway many state legislatures, but will struggle to change things in Washington.
Only 47 percent of those surveyed, including current and former U.S. Department of Education leaders, Congressional staffers, state school chiefs and experts at think tanks, expect to see any change to federal law. By comparison, 70 percent say they think the thousands of students refusing to take exams will force states to rethink what tests they give and how they use the results of those tests to judge students, educators and schools.
In part, it’s because those surveyed believe the opt-out movement has staying power; 63 percent think more students will opt out next year and 62 percent think the opt-out movement represents a significant challenge to current systems that assess student, teacher and school performance.
That’s not to say it isn’t possible that federal policies can shift: Congress is working to revamp the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) – the Bush-era version of the act, called No Child Left Behind, ushered in the age of federally mandated annual tests. The newest incarnation of the law could theoretically eliminate the requirement that nearly every public school student is tested in grades three through eighth and once in high school or could give states more flexibility when it comes to the tests they administer. Both the House and Senate versions of the ESEA rewrite, while maintaining that states must use yearly assessments to gauge every student’s growth, will allow states to use more than just statewide math and reading tests to do that.
While the future of the ESEA rewrite is unclear, states are responding to the growing animosity towards testing. Many states have already set out to cut the number of tests students have to take and the number of hours students spend taking the tests. In New York, where 20 percent of students did not take the state exams, the Department of Education announced last week that they will shorten the exams for 2016.
A New Hampshire project addresses some of the deeper concerns of the opt-out movement. The state is allowing participating districts to come up with their own end-of-year assessments to meet the federal annual testing requirement – opening the door to having students complete projects or write essays, in lieu of the usual state exams, to prove that they’ve mastered the Common Core standards. As a check on the system, the federal government is requiring that students take the state tests in some grades.
“When people say No Child Left Behind or testing isn’t working, what they’re often saying is the tests and accountability system isn’t fair, is ineffective and isn’t credible,” said Brian Gong – senior associate at the Center for Assessment, which works with states on their testing and accountability programs. “And if you think those things, just shortening tests or eliminating tests won’t fix much because any amount of time spent on testing is bad.”