Test opt out policy creates controversy

Opting out of state standardized testing is easy - though some officials would rather parents not realize just how easy. From the Alamosa Valley Courier.

The Alamosa School Board approved wording of a policy that governs how parents can opt their children out of state assessment testing Monday night.

The policy allows parents to exempt their children to all or specific state assessments, valid for up to one school year.

The wording as passed reads: “The request for exemption must be submitted in writing and in-hand to school building/district Administration at least 2 weeks prior to the administration of the first test. In addition to the written request, the requesting parent shall meet with school building/district Administration.”

The policy also states that parents will not be required to give a reason for asking for the exemption, and state law prohibits districts from punishing students who opt out.

Colorado currently requires students to participate in testing across a range of subjects from third through 11th grade.

Federal law requires districts to show 95% student participation rates in assessment testing to receive a host of federal funds.

Testing is also an important source of data on the effectiveness of instructional programs, said Alamosa Schools superintendent Rob Alejo.

“Are we seeing any particular grade levels, any particular subject area, that we consistently over time are not doing well in?” said Alejo.” It helps us focus our attention to our academic needs. “

The policy comes in the wake of last year’s testing season, which saw substantial walk-out protests in several Front Range school districts, with thousands of students refusing to take high school social studies assessments.

In Alamosa, only three students opted out of state tests last year.

An act signed into law last May requires districts to develop procedures by which parents can exempt their children from taking state tests, spurring the development of Alamosa’s policy.

Debate over the wording at Monday’s school board meeting was tense at times, with debate centering on the wording regarding parents meeting with school officials prior to the exemption being granted.

“I’m concerned we’re making parents jump through a bunch of hoops that are not required by the state just so we can make them listen to our reasoning,” said assistant secretary Keith Vance. “Maybe they’re already informed. Reasonable people can opt their children out. It’s a reasonable thing to do for a bunch of reasons. If you don’t think it’s a reasonable thing, go talk to all those parents on the Front Range that do.”

School board treasurer Mandy Jackson disagreed.

“What if they’re not reasonable?” said Jackson. “What if it’s monkey see, monkey do, and because they’re doing it, I’m going to do it? By making them come in and sit down with an administrator, and understand what’s going to happen, they say ‘Oh, I didn’t know that. Sure, my kid can take a test.’ And we’re saving ourselves that one kid that is testing who might not have tested because Mom and Dad are doing what everybody else is doing.”

The chance to speak with exempting parents is important, Alejo said.

“We want an opportunity as an admin team to share our district’s stance on what those tests or the zeroes by a person opting out, how it could affect the district,” Alejo said. “That’s the only open door for that dialogue.”

Despite policy wording that protects parents from having to explain their reasoning for opting out of testing, Jackson wanted officials to have the chance to question exempting parents.

“I want to know: did you write this paper that you just handed in to me?” said Jackson. “Do you really understand it? Or did you just get this from somebody else? That’s what I want to know. Why can’t we hold them accountable? Why can’t we ask them a few questions? Why is that so bad?”

Assistant superintendent Carrie Zimmerman said the meetings would allow the district to plead their case to exempting parents.

“We just want them to understand how it impacts our district,” said Zimmerman. “We want them to be informed. And we don’t want it to be an easy out. Because then principals are going to have to figure out what to do with those kids. If we have a hundred kids who opt out, we’re going to be required to do something with them during that time. That’s going to throw a wrench in things. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask a parent to meet with an administrator and say do you understand?’”

Alamosa High School Principal Andy Lavier said the policy requiring parents to meet with school officials could cause a problem.

“If we had three like we did last year, it really wouldn’t be a big deal,” said Lavier. “But a hundred or something like that, scheduling a hundred meetings with parents, that would be really difficult to do. I can’t speak for everyone else, but I don’t have time to set up a bunch of meetings. I’ll go down the path of least resistance.”

The meetings may not do much good, said school board vice president Arlan Van Ry.

“I know we’re trying to make it difficult for them to opt out,” said Van Ry, “but if I had my mind made up as a parent, this practice isn’t going to change my mind, it’s just going to waste my time. I don’t like to be told I have to do one more thing if I’ve already met the state minimum requirement.”

State law preventing districts from punishing exempting parents or teachers may render the issue a moot point anyway.

“We are saying that this is what our policy is, and if the parent chooses to buck that, the parent chooses to buck that,” said Zimmerman. “We can’t make them submit something in writing, and we can’t make them meet with the administration.”

The bottom line is that testing is vital, said Zimmerman.

“The state requires that students test,” said Zimmerman. “That’s the state expectation. We’re trying to fulfill the obligation that the state is putting forward. If push comes to shove, we just want to have some things in place so that we can support those efforts. We’re trying to do the necessary things because we value the importance of the test. We think parents need to be made aware of that.“