Language is Everything
The Maryland State Department of Education has said that students cannot opt out of taking the PARCC tests or other mandated standardized tests. The primary reason is that the federal law mandates that 95% of all students must take the test. So it stands to reason that if MSDE were to give students and their families the opportunity to “opt” out, Maryland could run the risk of being below the 95% threshold. Very few states have allowed for an opt out process. However, many families oppose the testing. These families cite the amount of time taken from classroom instruction, not just for the test itself but for the preparation that happens as a run up to the testing itself.
Frederick County has a significant number of families who are opposed to the testing. The County requested a ruling from MSDE regarding whether or not families and their children could opt out. MSDE responded with a relatively firm no.
Now Frederick County Public Schools has come up with a new policy. Students still may not opt out of the testing. But under the new policy, what students can do, is refuse to take the test. So here is how this will work. Families may not pre-emptively refuse to allow their children to take the test. HOWEVER, when the test is put before the child, the student may simply refuse to participate. From the point of view of FCPS, refusal at the time of presentation is different from a pre-emptive no. From this perspective, the public schools are doing what they are required to do- administer the test to the students. The students, in the words of the famous Nancy Regan, may just say no. Students who are not capable of speaking may use whatever alternative device they use to communicate their wishes.
The Board of Education said that this policy was developed to create consistent direction throughout the county’s public school system while still respecting the rights of students and the obligations of schools. Under the policy, school administrators may offer alternative activities for students who opt out--- oops, sorry-refuse to take the test.
The president of the State School Board has declined to comment. Although he did say the FCPS policy seemed close to the prohibition for opting out. The policy will be referred for legal advice.
Meanwhile, the members of the Frederick County Board of Education said they are aware there could be some push back from MSBE. There is concern among the members who voted no that this policy could be seen as encouragement for kids not to take the test. The spectre of losing federal funding that flows through MSDE to the local school systems is also a concern.
The Frederick County School Board’s attorney has vetted the language and the policy passed was slightly less vigorous than the first draft. The County Superintendent stated she thought the Board had drafted a policy that was consistent with the State Board directive.
The Maryland State Education Association president has long pushed for an alternative route for those students who, for whatever reason, are opposed to the testing. The union has issued a statement that this policy is a step in the right direction.
Nationally, teachers’ unions have been at the forefront of encouraging the opt out movement. Part of that encouragement comes from the link between student performance on these tests and a teacher’s evaluation.
The fall-out from this policy is yet to be known. The State Board needs to weigh in on whether Frederick County is in violation of its directive. If the number of students who refuse the test pushes Frederick county’s test participation below the 95% threshold, will that jeopardize federal funding? If this plan provides a way for a school system to be respectful of parents’ wishes while still upholding state policy, there could be more school districts in Maryland taking this route. Then again there is that pesky issue of federal funding.
A rose is a rose, is a rose. Then again maybe not, all depends on if the rose refuses to be a flower.