BANGOR, Maine — As debate over standardized testing ramped up in the Legislature, the Maine Department of Education again cautioned parents and school administrators this week about the possible fallout from opting out of statewide assessments. Among the potential repercussions — a school could withhold a student’s diploma.
“No one is going to force a child to sit and take the test,” Acting Commissioner Tom Desjardin said in a written statement released Wednesday. “[Parents and students] do not, however, have a right to be shielded from the consequences of that act, which could range from action by the school district or loss of federal funding for the school.”
The department issued the statement in the wake of the legislative education committee’s discussion of LD 695, An Act to Empower Parents in the Education of Their Children by Allowing an Opt-out from Standardized Assessments. The committee recommended that the bill ought not to pass when it hits the full Legislature in coming weeks, in spite of a series of failed amendments aimed at softening the language and provisions of the bill.
The bill seeks to codify in statute that the right to opt out exists — federal courts have supported that right in several cases. The measure also would require the DOE and local school districts to notify parents of their opt-out rights, and it prohibits punitive action against districts or teachers that discuss or encourage opt outs. Those provisions, however, could conflict with existing state law, which gives local school districts the right to place graduation requirements on students, and enforce them as needed, according to attorneys from the attorney general’s office and the Legislature’s Office of Policy and Legal Analysis, who spoke during the work session on the bill.
For example, under state law, a school district could set community service, a senior-year exit exam or, in this case, completion of the statewide test as a condition of graduation. Failure to meet that condition would mean no diploma for that student. Those decisions are entirely local, and the bill as it was originally written would have forced the DOE to interfere, and usurp that local authority to set expectations for students, Desjardin argued.
Desjardin pointed to Noble High School in North Berwick, part of MSAD 60, which requires students to take the state test in their junior year if they want to graduate. The student handbook states: “The state and federal governments use these test results to determine our school and student success and progress. Completion of required state testing is a graduation requirement.”
Joe Findlay, principal at Noble, said the school has required participation in state testing as a condition of graduation for the past seven years, along with 60 hours of community service and annual capstone presentations. The school has never failed to meet the 95 percent test participation rule, according to the principal.
“We have not had to withhold any diplomas because the students who did not test did not graduate or received a waiver from the state due to extenuating circumstances,” Findlay said.
In SAD 60, if parents want to opt their children out of the Maine Educational Assessment, they must sign a form stating that they understand that all schools in Maine are required by federal law to have 95 percent of their students tested or the school could face financial penalties.
It’s unclear how many other districts in the state have similar graduation requirements. Neither Desjardin nor the Maine School Management Association could name others off hand, and no reliable record exists on the varied graduation requirements in districts across the state.
However, student handbooks available on school websites indicate that Old Town High School and Lake Region High School in Naples also require students to take the state assessment in their junior year in order to graduate.
Lake Region Principal Ted Finn said Friday that in his five years at the school, which has had the requirement since the 1990s, no student has failed to graduate because they didn’t take the test. Students have failed to graduate, but never solely because they didn’t take the state test, he said. As of Friday, no juniors at Lake Region had opted out of this year’s exam.
Messages left for Old Town administrators were not immediately returned Friday.
The Maine DOE has said it won’t take any action against districts that don’t meet the 95 percent federal threshold, in part because this was the first — and last — year of the Smarter Balanced statewide assessment.
The federal DOE, however, has made no such promise, and in fact, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said recently that if states don’t enforce the 95 percent rule, the feds will.
Education officials in Maine say it’s likely that schools with high opt-out rates will be asked by the federal DOE to provide plans of how to get back to the 95 percent level of testing, but if the opting out trend continues, the department could crack down.
The only real enforcement vehicle the federal DOE has against local school districts is funding. Federal funds aimed at helping schools with high rates of disadvantaged students could be cut at districts that regularly fail to meet the 95 percent threshold. To receive this funding, a school district must agree to comply with federal education laws and requirements.
If funding cuts become a serious concern at Maine schools, more districts could look to adopt requirements that students take the state test as a condition of graduation.
As this plays out, federal regulations concerning testing requirements also could evolve as Congress is considering new drafts of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
“The question here is about what is best for students,” Maine Education Association President Lois Kilby-Chesley said Thursday. “Parents are opting out because of concern for their child. Teachers are concerned that too much focus on standardized testing takes up valuable time spent on learning. We should be focusing on the needs of our students instead of threatening them with the idea they won’t receive a diploma if they don’t check off enough boxes on some standardized test.”
Schools in pockets across Maine have reported students opting out of the tests at high rates.
In Sanford, 120 of 268 high school juniors didn’t take the test. In Lewiston, 55 percent of juniors opted out, along with about 10 percent of elementary school students and 14 percent of middle schoolers. Cape Elizabeth saw 32 percent of its eighth-graders, 18 percent of its seventh-graders and 64 percent of its high school juniors opt out. There are many examples of high opt-out rates across the state, but a reliable statewide tally isn’t yet available. The DOE should have statewide numbers early next month after the testing window closes and it learns which students missed the test because of illness or a family trip, and which ones actually opted out.
The opt-out movement has seen a boost in recent years across the country, in part fueled by changes implemented under rigorous Common Core standards adopted in some states.
Reasons for opting out vary from concern about the amount of testing students are faced with to displeasure with Smarter Balanced tests and Common Core. Lawmakers on the education committee recommended Monday that the state drop Smarter Balanced after its debut year and court a new company to help develop a new statewide assessment.
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.