In an act of radical and frustrating clarity, the Maryland State Board of Education this past week shut down a local debate over whether parents and students can opt out of standardized assessments.
No, they said. You may not.
The Frederick County Board of Education had sought the state board’s direction after protests by parents and students over forced participation in state testing, such as PARRC — the Common Core-driven Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.
But a blanket refusal to refuse — or opt out — fails to make sense. It also undermines the efforts of the local school board to evolve a pliant opt-out and refusal policy, and it unduly affects one particular category of students for whom testing serves little, if any, purpose.
Where we can understand denying the right to refuse to those competent to make decisions for themselves, what is hard to believe is that the state wishes to go ahead and test students so severely mentally disabled, they’re unable to push a button without assistance.
Take Nikki Moberly’s daughter, Erin, for instance, who has the intellectual capability of a 3-month-old. Moberly has campaigned for her daughter to be exempted from state testing. (In the interest of full disclosure, Moberly is a columnist for The Frederick News-Post.)
The ultimate result of the state’s ruling is to force parents such as Moberly into unnecessary confrontation with teachers and school administrators who must enforce the law.
Liz Barrett, a member of the Frederick County school board, said she was furious and frustrated at the ruling. “There appears to be no mechanism to say no,” she said.
Barrett’s points were echoed by a fellow board member.
“I feel that the state findings don’t recognize the wide variety of human beings we deal with every day,” Colleen Cusimano said. “Therefore, I imagine there will be opposition to those findings. I hope so. I will be supporting that opposition.”
Cusimano and Barrett, who have headed the push to develop the refusal policy, are rightfully angry. We’re frustrated too that the State Board of Education has been this tone-deaf, even as we understand the statewide school system is hemmed in by inflexible federal mandates. The district is obligated to test each student, regardless of their capacity for testing, in order to meet a federal mandate — test 95 percent of students, or risk federal funding. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, a federal law, requires that students with disabilities be tested, with no blanket state-level opt-out policy for severely disabled students, according to the Maryland school board’s written opinion in response to the Frederick County board’s inquiry.
But looking at the statistics of students aged 6 to 21 served under IDEA, it appears unlikely that offering the opt-out option to the parents of severely mentally impaired students would threaten federal funding. According to the Maryland Board of Education’s own Fact Book for 2013-2014, which contains enrollment statistics, 102,578 students were in special education out of a total population of 866,169. Of those, 30,876 were classified with specific learning disabilities — about 3.6 percent of the total school population; 8,095 were classified as having developmental delays. While the fact book doesn’t outline specific details of how many severely mentally disabled students are served statewide, it’s hard to imagine they comprise more than a fraction of that 3.6 percent, and that not testing them would come close to violating that federally required 95 percent.
The Maryland General Assembly debated and ultimately failed to act on a statewide opt-out policy for students this year. Next year, they should take up this discussion again, tailoring an option for the small percentage of children for whom testing is a pointless exercise.