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Credit: Berkeley Unified School District

Students in California preparing for the Smarter Balanced tests.

Update: The article was updated on Dec. 23 with a reference to an article in Education Week and the state’s response to it, with supporting information.

Sizable numbers of juniors at a handful of high schools declined to take new Smarter Balanced tests in the Common Core standards, but the overall statewide participation rate for the tests was 97 percent, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson announced Tuesday. That exceeded the 95 percent rate needed to satisfy federal testing requirements and avoid possible state penalties this year under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

“These numbers tell an important story,” Torlakson said in a statement. “They reflect strong support for our new standards among parents, teachers, students, and business and community leaders.”

In an article published Wednesday, Education Week reported that California was one of a dozen states that had failed to meet the 95 percent threshold. In an undated letter to Torlakson and State Board of Education President Michael Kirst, the U.S. Department of Education asked the state how it plans to correct the problem in 2015-16.

State Department of Education spokesman Peter Tira responded in an email that federal officials incorrectly used preliminary data; the state informed them of this in a Dec. 4 letter that stated that all but 21 districts, comprising less than 0.3 percent of the state’s students, had met the 95 percent participation rate. (Click here for a list of the districts.)

The process of opting out of state standardized tests is easier in California than in most states; parents need only to sign and return a form. EdSource found last spring that in at least four high schools, in the affluent communities of Palo Alto, Palos Verdes and Calabasas, half of juniors opted out. Students interviewed said they wanted to study for the SAT and ACT exams – which were given about the same time – instead.

Smarter Balanced tests were given to students in math and English language arts in grades 3-8 and grade 11 in high school. The scores don’t count on a student’s record but they will be used as a measure of a school’s academic performance. Nonetheless, many high school juniors did had have an incentive to take the tests. Students applying to the California State University who scored high enough were exempt from having to take remedial classes as freshmen. The 11th grade participation rate was 90 percent, which includes absentees as well as opt-outs.

To count as participating in the test, a student had only to sign on to a computer for the multiple-choice and the more complex performance task portions of the test in both English language arts and math. However, to receive a score, students had to answer a minimum number of questions; the state did not cite that number in the information it released Tuesday.

Doug McRae, a retired educational testing company executive in charge of design and development of K-12 tests who lives in Monterey, criticized the Smarter Balanced’s definition of  participation as “a very low bar” that schools can manipulate. “The traditional specification for participation includes answering a minimal number of test questions,” he said.

The 97 percent participation rate included students who took the field test of the California Alternative Assessment, which was given to students with cognitive disabilities excluding them from taking the Smarter Balanced test.

Torlakson said that the high participation rates showed that the state and local districts were effective in upgrading Internet and computing capability at California schools. Only about 900 of the 3.2 million students who took the tests used paper and pencil because of inadequate technology.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, which Congress passed this month to replace No Child Left Behind next year, also will require that 95 percent of students take standardized tests used to measure school performance. However, unlike NCLB, states will determine what penalties to apply to schools whose participation rates fall short of the minimum.