School Quality

If You're Weak on Opt-Out, You're Weak on Accountability

Some states may be setting themselves up to fail. That’s my takeaway after reading through a  summary of state education plans for dealing with schools that have a large number of students opting out of state tests. Federal education law says 95 percent of students need to take state tests. There are a lot of  good reasons for this, like making sure schools don’t inflate their performance by encouraging certain students to skip testing days, or simply to be able to see which groups—students with disabilities, minorities or economically disadvantaged students—may be falling behind or making progress against their peers. Of the 10 plans submitted so far, half of them outline vague consequences for districts and schools that fail to meet that 95 percent bar. For example, in Massachusetts the school’s overall rating would drop, but the plan doesn’t say how much. The plan also doesn’t clearly define what the different levels will even be. They’re leaning toward a tiered system of rating with 10 levels, but what those levels will be and what a school will have to do to reach one level versus another is still to be determined. Delaware is just as vague. Each school that tests less than 95 percent of students would have to submit a plan showing how it’ll increase test participation. If schools don’t meet the threshold for “multiple years” or don’t make progress towards it, their department of education “will implement additional actions and interventions as appropriate.” Nevada is slightly better with a three-tier system outlining actions in each phase—warning, participation penalty and continuing participation penalty—but they still leave plenty of wiggle room by saying the school’s final rating for the year would be reduced by a “significant number of points.” In other words, states may trigger some meaningful consequences for schools that test less than 95 percent of their students, but they may not. There’s a lot of room for interpretation. “Additional actions and interventions as appropriate,” could amount to sending a stern letter to the principal or mandating that they watch  this sock-puppet video on standardized testing. Seriously though, what’s to stop them from taking a couple of trivial steps and patting themselves on the back for meeting the law’s requirements? A “significant number of points” is also negotiable, as is “multiple years.” Those who want to avoid serious consequences can lobby for fewer points or extra years as soon as someone decides it might be time to do something. It gives states an easy out if they want it. Who knows, maybe they wrote it that way for precisely that reason.

No Matter Your Status, It Does Affect You

Opting out of state tests has made waves for the last couple of years as  mostly White parents in mostly upper-middle class neighborhoods rallied students to opt-out of state tests. Now if you’re a middle-income or wealthy, White parent with a neurotypical, non-disabled student in the public education system, there’s probably no reason for you to care about school accountability. The system is already working pretty well for you. But if you’re the parent of a student with disabilities, a student of color, or you feel the weight of poverty’s oppression in your home and community—or if you care about anyone within any of these communities—then making sure schools are testing most of their students does affect you. And the truth is, whether we see it or not, it affects all of us. Because the more we avoid looking at a problem, the more we put it out of our minds, the bigger the problem becomes and the less likely (and less capable) we are to address it. The new federal education law, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act, says states have to test at least 95 percent of students, but it also says states can decide what kind of consequences districts and schools will face if they don’t meet that 95 percent bar. As a society,  we believe in accountability. We may disagree on how rigid or loose an accountability system should be, but most people believe there should be some way to see how we’re doing and take action when needed, especially for something as important as educating our kids. But if there are no real consequences, there is no real accountability. And when a state writes vague or unenforceable laws, again, there is no accountability. Families, education leaders (including teachers), and elected officials need to stay vigilant against plans to water down accountability systems designed to help our students get the education they deserve. If they don’t, they’re just setting themselves and their kids up for failure.
Lane Wright
Lane Wright is Director of Strategic Growth at Education Post. In addition to this role, he tells stories that help families understand how their schools are doing, how to make them better and how policy plays a role. He’s a former journalist and former press secretary to Florida’s governor, and he’s got a knack for breaking down complex education reform policy issues into easy-to-understand ...

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