Students and parents do not have the right to opt out of state standardized assessments, the Maryland State Board of Education informed the Frederick County school board Wednesday.
The Frederick County Board of Education has been tinkering with policy language related to students who refuse to take state standardized tests.
How the state board’s opinion, issued to Frederick County Public Schools and the local board Wednesday, will influence this policy has yet to be determined.
In December, the Frederick County Board of Education called for a declaratory ruling from the state education board, asking for clarity on the state board’s position on student and parent refusals.
The Frederick school board, in its request, wrote that over the past two years or so, parents in the district asked that their children not participate in state assessments, such as the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) exam, aligned to the Common Core Standards. The Maryland State Department of Education had advised local school districts to decline such requests, but nothing was firm, Frederick school board members said.
Some within the school system have drawn differences between a “refusal,” a student saying no when presented with a state assessment, and a student or parent pre-emptively “opting out.”
Frederick County’s board asked the state to clarify differences between an “opt out” and a “refusal,” but that went unaddressed in Wednesday’s opinion.
Superintendent Terry Alban said that letting a parent opt out means the school district would not meet its legal obligation to administer state standardized tests. Federal funding hinges on statewide testing of at least 95 percent of Maryland students, the state board wrote in its opinion.
But of course, a student can’t be forced to be tested, Alban said.
“We want to respect and honor parents and, at the same time, we still have to comply with the law,” Alban said. “We know that these tests are very much a part of our accountability as a school system. That is how the public will judge us doing our job. I hope that’s not the only way they judge that we’re producing a quality product, but it is definitely one way. And the state and federal government look at it as a return of investment.”
The Frederick school board also sought guidance from the state, so the school district and other jurisdictions could develop procedures to permit refusals for state assessments.
In its opinion, the state board wrote that such procedures would contradict state law. Adopting a policy that notifies parents that their child may refuse would also infringe on state law, the opinion states.
Draft policy language the board has discussed states that “refusals to participate in state- or federally-mandated assessments, either by parents who refuse on behalf of their students or by students themselves ... must be honored without question.”
In an interview, Frederick County Board of Education President Brad Young said the wording on any policy needs to be precise to avoid breaching the state board’s interpretation of the law.
“What I heard loud and clear is that they don’t want anything in writing that encourages or condones students not wanting to take this test,” Young said.
Board Vice President Liz Barrett and board members Colleen Cusimano and April Miller led the charge to develop the refusal policy.
In a phone interview, Barrett — stressing that she was speaking only for herself — said she was “furious” about the opinion and frustrated that “there appears to be no mechanism for anybody to say no.”
She and Cusimano said the board needs to discuss the policy further.
Cusimano said she was pleased the state rendered a legal opinion other than the nebulous conversations that reached the board. This way, she said, there can be specific opposition.
Cusimano said the school district has to comply with federal law and the spirit of maintaining an accountability system, but not all students, such as those with disabilities, can participate in exams. Or their parents can choose not to have them participate.
“I feel that the state findings don’t recognize the wide variety of human beings we deal with every day,” she said. “Therefore, I imagine there will be opposition to those findings. I hope so. I will be supporting that opposition.”
A parent in the school system, Nikki Moberly, has long advocated for her daughter, Erin, who has a disability and whose intellectual capabilities compare to those of a 3-month-old, Moberly has said. Moberly had previously secured an exemption for her daughter from state assessments prior to the shift to a new set of tests.
Moberly said she was disappointed with the state’s opinion. She said the school district is verging on a breakthrough with its policy and those efforts have been effectively squashed.
A bright spot in the opinion, Moberly said, is that the state recognized that despite its declaration, students still might still refuse, which opens “a crack in the door.”
The state has acknowledged that students can refuse, Moberly said, and would be discriminating against students with disabilities who can’t verbalize their own refusal.
The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires that students with disabilities be tested, with no blanket state-level opt-out policy for severely disabled students, the opinion states.
The state board also wrote that the school system isn’t legally obligated to offer alternative activities for students who refuse, another point the Frederick school board questioned in December.
In a February memo to principals, Jamie Aliveto, the director of system accountability and school improvement, wrote that students who refuse to take the PARCC may sit in the classroom and read a book unrelated to course work.
Otherwise, students can remain in the classroom, sitting quietly, the memo states.
In an earlier interview, Aliveto said that parents may not refuse a test on their children’s behalf, though parents may refuse for their children who are severely disabled and cannot do so for themselves.
This was not included in the February memo, nor was the fact that the school system accepts refusals on a student’s “typical mode of communication,” such as an assisted communication device.
Aliveto said the school system works with parents to determine the best scenario and students may be removed from a testing area when they refuse, and provided an educational game to play, if staff is available to supervise.
Most states do not allow testing opt-outs, according to a report from the National Association of State Boards of Education. Only three states permit opt-outs entirely — California, Colorado and Oregon.