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Opting out

This year, the Medford School District saw an increase in the number of charter school students opting out of the state’s standardized math and English language arts assessments after new legislation made the tests optional for families.

In 2014-15, 62 Medford students — 13 charter school students and 49 non-charter students — claimed a religious or disability exemption and were excused from the Smarter Balanced assessments.

Since then, Gov. Kate Brown approved House Bill 2655, allowing anyone — not just those with a religious or disability exemption — to opt out of the annual summative assessments, administered every spring to third- through eighth-graders and 11th-grade students.

Last spring, 141 Medford students, including 57 from Madrone Public Charter School and 55 from Logos Public Charter School, chose not to participate in the last round of assessments, which started in March and wrapped up in May.

Karen Bailey, Madrone’s new executive director, said some charter school parents connect the tests with ranking and funding and believe that it doesn’t serve the child.

“Part of being alternative is taking a stand against testing because it drives funding and prestige in the public school system,” she said. “It’s a national trend, particularly among parents using alternative education methods, and questioning the status quo.

“It’s coming from the parents, not the administrators or teachers. Some teachers certainly like the information (gained from the test results),” she said.

Bailey said she hopes she can have a conversation with parents in the future and remind them that testing is about the experience, not the outcome.

Logos Director Joe VonDoloski said parents at his school were familiar with the new opt-out law, and the majority of the students who did opt out were in elementary school.

“At Logos, parents wanted to be engaged with their students throughout the week in their regular studies and personalized learning plan and not have to stop and test for a full week on a computer,” he said.

“Unfortunately for us, a lot of the K-6 students who opted out are very bright students who would have done well on the tests and raised our scores,” he said. “But we respect and support their right to follow state laws that support their freedoms and rights. These parents don't need a test score to tell them their children are smart. They know.”

The federal government’s Every Student Succeeds Act requires that 95 percent of all students participate in state tests but also allows states to create their own opt-out laws and determine the consequences for schools and districts that fail to meet federal targets, said Oregon Department of Education spokeswoman Crystal Greene.

Oregon will submit its plan to the U.S. Department of Education in March 2017, following a public comment period this fall, said ODE spokeswoman Amy Wojcicki.

In Medford, about 1 percent of the district’s total enrollment opted out of the tests.

Medford Chief Academic Officer Michelle Zundel said she expects to see the number of students opting out drop as more parents become more familiar with the assessment, its purpose and its benefits.

Students who opted out of the test spent that time in supervised study hall, in accordance with state law, Zundel said.

Other local school districts also met the federal participation rate. In Ashland, 47 students, or 2.3 percent of all full-time, third- through 12th-graders, opted out. In Central Point, nine students opted out of the language arts assessments and 30 students opted out of the math assessments. One percent of Phoenix-Talent students and only one student in Eagle Point opted out.

The Smarter Balanced assessments, said Zundel, ask students “to think critically, apply their knowledge to real-world problems and write using evidence.” Furthermore, the tests require students to demonstrate perseverance and to practice taking standardized tests, a skill they’ll need later in life to take the SAT, ACT, licensing exams or other types of standardized tests, she said.

And, of course, it provides families and teachers with information about a student’s progress on state standards, Zundel said.

“Our state and nation have raised expectations for our students, and we will educate them and support them to meet that higher standard, not back away from it because it's difficult,” she said. “While it is only one snapshot of student learning, it provides valuable information.”

Reach education reporter Teresa Thomas at 541-776-4497 or tthomas@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/teresathomas_mt.

Logos Public Charter School teacher Brianne Fanelli works with second-grader Micah Zinkel in this 2014 file photo. Some parents of charter students are opting out of state tests, believing they don't serve the child. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell