Final tally shows few opt-outs from Common Core-aligned tests in California

January 28, 2016
caaspp sbac smarter balanced test scores results

Students take Smarter Balanced practice tests at Bayshore Elementary School in Daly City.

Just over 20,000 California students opted out of last year’s Smarter Balanced assessments – far fewer than in other states, where resistance to the Common Core has been greater, a final tally from the state shows.

In December, the California Department of Education issued a final list of opt-outs in each school district. It indicates that a mere .61 percent of the 3.3 million students who took the Common Core-aligned tests in math and English language arts last spring opted out.

Only 39 districts out of all 1,022 districts statewide had more than 100 students opt out of English testing. For math, only 37 districts reported more than 100 opt-outs.

Statewide, the highest number of opt-outs was in the 11th grade – 8,526 students, or 1.8 percent of the total number of high school juniors, from the math test, and 8,318 students, or 1.7 percent, from the English test. Opt-opt rates were under .5 percent in all other grades.

The full battery of tests was administered to students in grades 3 through 8 and 11 for the first time last spring.   In September, the department gave preliminary, statewide opt-out numbers when the scores were first released, which also showed fewer than 1 percent of  students’ opting out. But  numbers on opt-outs for individual districts were not released at that time.

Under state law, parents or guardians are allowed to submit written requests for their children to exempt them from standardized testing.

California’s opt-out numbers are miniscule compared to some states, especially New York, where more than 200,000 students, or 20 percent, opted out of tests. While other states have seen major protests over the Common Core implementation, the issue has been relatively dormant in California.

“California has not been a hotbed for opting out,” said Bob Schaeffer, a spokesman for the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, or FairTest. FairTest has estimated that about 625,000 students in 13 states opted out of last year’s Common Core testing. The percent of students who opted out varies by state, but New York is believed to have the highest percentage.

In many cases, California’s opt-outs were unrelated to dissatisfaction with the Common Core standards, according to officials in districts with high opt-out numbers. Rather, juniors in some districts asked their parents to request exemptions because they were overwhelmed with other college-related tests scheduled around the same time, including Advanced Placement exams and SATs.

Differing markedly from the paltry statewide opt-out rates, Palo Alto Unified had 606 exemptions in English among about 7,000 students in grades that take the Smarter Balanced tests.

Opt-out rates were highest at the district’s two high schools. At Gunn High, only 23 percent of the juniors took the English test and 26 percent participated in the math test. Palo Alto High also had low numbers of students take the Smarter Balanced tests – 44 percent in English and 51 percent in math.

In Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified, an affluent Los Angeles County district, Common Core protesters got the word out about the opt-out law by putting flyers on cars and handing out information at schools.

Most of the district’s 575 opt-outs in math were in high schools where juniors learned of the option not to take the test and asked their parents to sign opt-out forms, Superintendent Don Austin said. One quarter of Palos Verdes High School’s 11th-graders took the Smarter Balanced math test.

The 11th-grade test is used by the California State University system and other colleges to determine if students are ready for college-level coursework, under the Early Assessment Program. Students’ Smarter Balanced test scores can determine whether they need to take additional placement tests that check the need for remedial courses in college.

But there are other ways that students can demonstrate they are ready for college courses, such as college placement tests, and other universities don’t rely on the Smarter Balanced tests. Some students found that other tests, including Advanced Placement exams, were more relevant to their college admissions’ prospects than the Smarter Balanced tests.

Palos Verdes parent Barry Yudess, who heads up the RestorePVEducation group, which led the Common Core protests in that district, said the high opt-out numbers in the district show that parents and students don’t consider the test important.

“The administration has come out and said this, ‘We want you to take this because we want you to look good,’” Yudess said. “It’s a complete waste of time. That’s why parents and students said, ‘What’s the point of this?’”

Statewide, there have been few or no direct consequences for districts with high opt-out numbers. 

Under the No Child Left Behind law, which is still technically in effect until the 2017-18 school year, the federal government requires that at least 95 percent of students in each district take annual standardized tests. If they don’t, the districts are listed as failing to make “adequate yearly progress,” or AYP. The law states that districts could lose federal funding for low-income students, called Title 1.

Overall, California reported a 97 percent participation rate on the Smarter Balanced tests.

Statewide, 21 school districts failed to reach the 95 percent participation rate on the Smarter Balanced tests. The state department is planning to send letters to officials in those districts, informing them that they need to increase participation in testing this year to avoid possibly losing federal funds in future years, said Cindy Kazanis, director of the educational data management division.

“I think we will provide some intervention going forward,” Kazanis said.

Despite threats to take away Title 1 funds when the participation rate falls below 95 percent, FairTest knows of no cases where the federal government has withheld money for that reason.

California also has its own rules – approved by the federal government – that make it easier to reach the required participation rate. California has set an “alternative method” to calculate the participation rate, averaging districts’ participation rates on state testing over two or three years. If those averages are at least 95 percent, then districts meet the AYP goal.

Previously, the state also incorporated results of the California Standards Tests into the AYP goals, but that was suspended in 2015 as those tests were suspended and the state transitioned to the Smarter Balanced testing last year.

Both Palo Alto and Palos Verdes, for example, met their district goals because their rates were averaged over two or three years, even though their percentages last year fell below 95 percent.

Austin said some community members are concerned that the low participation rate could affect the district’s rankings on school comparison lists, such as U.S. News and World Report, that considers how many students took standardized tests.

Two of the districts that fell below the 95 percent participation rate – Acalanes Union High and Jefferson Union High – had among the highest opt-out numbers statewide, with large numbers of juniors who skipped testing.

Credit: Courtesy of Cindy Serrano

Chula Vista parents opposed to the Common Core State Standards have been baking cakes to encourage others to opt out of the tests.

Jefferson Union High School District, based in Daly City, has five high schools where a total of 175 students opted out. Districtwide, 79 percent of students took the math test and 88 percent participated in the English portion. Superintendent Thomas Minshew said he was concerned about the low participation rate, but he had “no idea” whether the district would be sanctioned.

“We’re on the naughty list, I guess,” Minshew said.

Aida Glimme, associate superintendent of educational services for Acalanes Union in Contra Costa County, said she called the state “quite a bit” to find out whether the district would be sanctioned after learning how many juniors opted out of the test, but she couldn’t get an answer.

Acalanes had 238 opt-outs in math among its four traditional high schools and one independent-study school. In the district, 75 percent of students participated in the math test, while 79 percent of students took the English section.

After the test results were released, some parents had concerns that the scores were lower than usual, Glimme said.

But last spring, the parents and students didn’t realize how their results could be affected when they made the decision to opt out of testing.

“I think our community didn’t see the direct connection,” Glimme said.

The high opt-outs didn’t seem to affect test results in Palo Alto and Palos Verdes, where parents were enthusiastic about the scores, district officials said.

“We don’t seem to see any kind of public concern,” said Christopher Kolar, director of research and assessment at Palo Alto Unified, about the scores and opt-outs. “We understand why it happened and we’re attempting to engineer a schedule around it this year.”

Statewide, some districts and charter schools started Smarter Balanced testing as early as Jan. 19.

Some of the school districts with high numbers of opt-outs are changing their testing schedules to avoid interference with other tests, including Advanced Placement exams. Some also are reaching out to parents and students to explain the importance of taking the test.

Acalanes is also switching the testing time. Last year, the Smarter Balanced testing was scheduled first thing in the morning before regular classes started, and some students skipped the tests and came to school late. This year, tests will be during English and history classes, Glimme said.

“We did listen to our high school students and we’re moving the testing window to after AP exams,” Austin said. “I think we did a pretty good job, sharing the results and trying to give some meaning to them at the back end.”

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