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Ann Arbor school board could crack down on parents who opt kids out of state test

Jun 2, 2015

The district is considering a new requirement for all kids to take the state test, or be excluded from magnet schools and programs.
Credit Ryan Brown

The Ann Arbor school board is considering a new rule that would require all students to take the state standardized test, or risk losing their spots at magnet schools and programs.

Now a parent has responded with an online petition protesting that policy.

Ann Arbor opt-out

This spring, about 100 students at Ann Arbor Open, a magnet school, sat out the new state test, called the M-STEP.

The parents who pulled their kids out cited several concerns: that the tests were taking too much time away from other learning; that they were putting too much stress on the kids; that there wasn’t enough information about who would see the results or how the results would be used.

“We are destroying our public schools and we will make a stand not only to support our child but to support the future of public education,” wrote Andrea Horvath, the Ann Arbor Open parent who  started the petition, in a letter to the school’s principal back in March.

Ann Arbor school could be designated “failing” by the state

Because so many kids sat out the test, the school missed a requirement that 95% of students participate.

The school board says that means the state will give the school a “red,” or failing grade, as happened with Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor when just 94.7% of its students took the state test.

That’s according to Deb Mexicotte, the school board president.  

"Sometimes those consequences [of not sitting for tests] are clear and sometimes they're evolving. But if we can avoid a consequence for Ann Arbor Schools, we work very hard to do so."

“Failing designations, since No Child Left Behind and many of the reforms at the state level, come with consequences,” says Mexicotte, “and sometimes those consequences are clear and sometimes they’re evolving. But if we can avoid a consequence for Ann Arbor Schools, we work very hard to do so.”

But it’s not clear what kind of consequences the state could impose for a high opt-out rate.

Michigan Radio called and emailed the Michigan Department of Education multiple times asking the following:

1)    What happens to a school or a district if they don’t meet the 95% student participation rate in a test? Are there consequences beyond the “red” or failure rating?

2)    Do parents have a recognized right to opt out of state tests?

So far, we haven’t gotten a response.

The school board is worried this could mean serious consequences

Mexicotte says the board doesn’t want to take the risk, however, given its past experience: a few years ago, she says the state designated all of Ann Arbor’s elementary schools to be in violation of achievement gap standards.

In the past, other state sanctions were "disruptive, it was confusing, it was frightening, and it was expensive."

“We got this designation, and this designation came with sanctions. They were financial, in that we had to divert certain amounts of our grant monies to amelioration. They were administrative, in that we had to take on, at our own expense, an academic manager given to us by the state in order to address these disparities – disparities we had already been addressing.

“And then we also had to send letters to every parent at these schools, saying if you chose to take your child out of these schools because of this designation – some of the top-performing schools in the state – we will pay to transport your child to another school with room in the county."

“It was disruptive, it was confusing, it was frightening, and it was expensive,” says Mexicotte.

What's more, she says the district doesn't always know what the state could have up its sleeve.  

“The cause and effect of these kinds of things is often capricious, sometimes not clear, and can change from year to year depending on what is being targeted by our Michigan Department of Education and our legislature."

"And so for us, testing is a state mandate. We are going to follow the law. And more than that, we’re doing it because it’s the best stewardship for the district down the road, whether the sanctions come today, or tomorrow, or potentially they never come. It is still not the best stewardship of this district on our part to fall outside these guidelines when, in our opinion, it is a simple matter to do so,” she adds.

Parents push back

But parents like Andrea Horvath say rather than cracking down on parents who opt their kids out of the test, the district should be advocating for less testing.

"I really wish that Ann Arbor Public Schools would take the lead and stand up to the state-mandated assessments."

"I really wish that Ann Arbor Public Schools would take the lead and stand up to the state-mandated assessments,” she says.

Asked what she’ll do if the board does implement the policy, Horvath says she’s not sure.

“I would have to think long and hard next year, if my child will be removed from her school because we would chose to opt out of the test. I really, really hope it doesn’t come to that. I don’t know, we would possibly consider other schools."

In the petition she’s started online, Horvath says the district’s proposed policy – kids have to take the state test or lose out on application-only schools and programs – is wrong. 

“The policy is discriminatory, in that it applies a sanction of forced removal from a chosen school only to those students who attend the magnet school, while it doesn’t apply any sanction to a student in a neighborhood school who also chooses to opt out of the M-STEP,” Horvath writes in the petition.

"The policy is discriminatory, in that it applies a sanction of forced removal from a chosen school only to those students who attend the magnet school."

“[And] the policy is an insult to parents and staff at neighborhood schools, in that it implies that removal from a magnet school to one’s neighborhood school is a punishment.”

So do parents have the right to opt their kids out of tests? 

School board President Deb Mexicotte says these kinds of debates about testing, and the district's compliance, are important for Ann Arbor to have.

Still, she says the board’s legal team has been clear on one point: opting out of tests isn’t something parents can do.

“The alternative for parents who don’t want (their children) to sit for standardized tests, is a private education, or homeschool, or other alternatives. But in public schooling, testing is expected, at least at a 95% level,” Mexicotte says.

“So this policy looked at not denying anyone an excellent Ann Arbor public school education, because we do have students who don’t sit for the tests at other schools. However, if you are in a specialized program, there are other expectations for the privileges of being in those programs. And this is an expectation that we are outlining specifically.”

"This language was shared with families and later retracted: 'Under both federal and state law you are fully within your rights to refuse participation in state assessments.' Even the MDE doesn't agree on this!"

In an email, Ann Arbor Open School Principal Kit Flynn says the Michigan Department of Education has given conflicting guidance when it comes to whether parents can opt their kids out of state tests.

“Representatives from MDE also sent conflicting information regarding parental rights and assessments,” Flynn says via email.

“This language was shared with families and later retracted: ‘Under both federal and state law (Michigan School Code 380.10) you are fully within your rights to refuse participation in state assessments.’ Even the MDE doesn't agree on this!”

Not just an Ann Arbor issue

There’s been a lot of debate nationally about how much to rely on standardized testing, and what kind of impact the growing emphasis on tests is having on students’ education.

And parents around the state have considered whether their kids would be better off skipping the tests altogether.

“I believe the resolution to this conflict should happen at the state and national level, not via policies by local school boards," says Ann Arbor Open school Principal Kit Flynn in an email. 

"As you know, there is an 'opt out' movement spread across the country. There are educators and parents alike who have serious reservations about when and how to assess students...I agree that certain assessments can measure the effectiveness of curriculum delivery and student progress. I also believe that parents, who have rights about vaccinations, homeschooling, and all other manner of 'what happens to my child is my decision' should have a voice in this discussion. This policy would silence a large number of parents about a topic where their voice matters.”

The school board will take up the draft policy at its next meeting on June 10.