Parents to Keep Some Children from State Testing

For a variety of philosophical reasons, parents in Londonderry are choosing to opt out of the Smarter Balanced practice test the School District will administer this month. But a state education official said some of the privacy reasons parents cite do not apply to the test.

As of Tuesday, March 31, parents of 38 students from 28 families have refused to let them take the test, according to the Superintendent’s office.  However, more parents are still considering opting out.

The Smarter Balanced practice test and the training test provide students with an early look at sets of assessment questions aligned to the Common Core in English and Math for grades three through eight, and high school students in their junior year.

Laura El-Azem of Summer Drive stood outside the polls on Election Day distributing fliers about Smarter Balanced, and the issue has generated much conversation on the Londonderry Moms Facebook page.

It seems like every day more and more parents are making this choice, according to Terri Byerly of King Charles Drive.

“This test is different, and that is something that parents should inform themselves about,” she said.

Byerly said after researching the test herself, she has concerns.

“A few weeks ago I had started to hear some rumblings about a new standardized test that was being administered in public schools in the state of New Hampshire. However, it wasn’t until I read one of Laura El-Azem’s letters in the Londonderry Times that I started to look into it,” she said in an email. “What I have learned so far is deeply concerning. Some of the information I have come across indicates that many of the questions will be above grade level and up to 70 percent of students are expected to fail. Other than stressing our kids out, I’m not sure what it is that will supposedly be achieved by testing students’ knowledge of concepts and information they have not yet learned or perhaps are not developmentally capable of learning at their age.”

But perhaps the biggest point of contention expressed by parents opposed to the Common Core-aligned assessment is that it collects a large amount of data about students that has the potential to be misused.

“According to the U.S. DOE, the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI) authorizes the use of testing instruments to gather hundreds of nationally-standardized data points and measure the ‘attributes, dispositions, social skills, attitudes and intra personal resources’ of public school students,” the flier El-Azem distributed at the polls warns. “A February 2013 report published by the Office of Educational Technology and the U.S. DOE says, ‘There is a growing movement to explore the potential of the ‘non cognitive’ factors – attributes, dispositions, social skills, attitudes, and interpersonal resources, independent of intellectual ability.”

The flier additionally warns parents the data is less secure and more widely shared than ever before.

Byerly said while it concerns her that many of the questions on the test will be above grade level, that wasn’t what made her want to refuse the test for her children.

“What really got my attention was when I learned that, based on a child’s answers to academic questions, information about his or her psychology (behaviors, attitudes, etc.) would also be gleaned. This information, along with the academic assessments, is then entered into a database. This database, it is my understanding, will contain a child’s personally identifiable information and can then be shared with any entity, including private corporations that can show a legitimate educational interest,” she said. “For me, that is much too broad a definition of an entity that could have access to this sensitive information about my child, and that could have unknown, long-term consequences for my child.”

But Heather Gage, Division of Educational Improvement director for the New Hampshire Department of Education (DOE), said that’s not the case.

New Hampshire’s state law is one of the most well respected child protection laws in the country, according to Gage.

“Somehow there’s misinformation about us asking questions regarding social issues, such as gun control and sexual orientation. There’s nothing in the assessment like that,” she said.

Additionally, Gage confirmed the DOE is under strict law regarding what information can and cannot be collected on statewide assessments, noting a student privacy bill recently passed prohibits the DOE from providing individualized student information to outside parties.

“We report only aggregate information, except to the schools. We can’t send information on an individual student – that’s private,” she said.

The information collected about students, other than their answers to curriculum-related questions, will be their name and student identification number, which is assigned for the test to ensure students with the same name aren’t confused.

Gage said the assessment itself is an “adaptive assessment,” meaning if a student is performing at a level higher than the standards at their grade level, the questions will advance to evaluate students on standards above their grade level; and if a student is struggling to meet grade-level standards, the questions will decrease in difficulty and evaluate students on standards below their grade level.

“The adaptive test allows parents and teachers to really have an understanding of what their students can do. If you’re taking any assessment in the real world, people want to know how far you can go,” Gage said. “This is a positive move forward in statewide assessments.”

Additionally, Gage explained that when the DOE hears content on assessments for students in the lower grades is too difficult, it’s often the standards the parents are concerned with, rather than the assessment itself.

Gage said she likes to see that parents are asking questions and ensuring their children are receiving what they need to be successful.

“The fact we have so many parents showing engagement in their children’s education is great, it’s what we want to see,” she said.

In a letter she shared with other moms in Londonderry to serve as a template for refusing the Smarter Balanced practice test, Corey Waters of Londonderry wrote that while New Hampshire law requires all public school students in designated grades to participate in the assessment, unless exempted, she understands from communication with DOE that there are no federal or state laws or DOE policies that would penalize students for non-participation.

“With that in mind, we refuse to allow our children to participate in SBAC (Smarter Balanced) testing. Our expectation, since they must legally be in school those days in order to avoid truancy, is that they be excused from the testing room and permitted to read, do their schoolwork, or engage in other quiet activity,” Waters wrote in a letter she shared with other parents on the Londonderry Moms Facebook page.

“As parents, our job is to always act in the best interests of our children, and we do not believe (Smarter Balanced) testing is in their best interest,” she continued.

Byerly said using the right language when opting out is important – parents should be sure to say they are choosing to “refuse” the test for their children in their letter to the District, as Waters did in the letter she shared.

Waters letter goes on to conclude, “We want to continue to encourage our teachers and reassure them that our refusal to allow our children to participate in (the Smarter Balanced) testing in no way undermines our support and appreciation for the work they do.”

Assistant Superintendent Scott Laliberte confirmed there would be no penalty to parents who refuse the testing for their children, and said the schools will make appropriate alternative arrangements during testing time for children who opt out.

“We would like students to be in school, even if they’re not taking the test,” he said.

Because of the federal No Child Left Behind legislation, the State is mandated to assess all students every year through a standardized test.

Previously, the District administered the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) test. Now, the state has made the switch to Smarter Balanced.

Legally, Laliberte can’t exempt anyone from the test for philosophical reasons.

There are very specific requirements for exemption, such as a crisis, health concern or a death in the family. There’s no provision in the law for the State to exempt students from the test, he said.

When parents asked Laliberte for exemptions, he apologized, and informed them he doesn’t have the regulatory authority to do that.

“As communicated through social media, while I can’t exempt parents, they do have the right to refuse,” he said. “There’s no consequence to individual families if they refuse. But there is a consequence for the School District if we refuse – we risk losing federal funds.”

It’s a challenging position from a legal standpoint, according to Laliberte.

“We’re trying to apply with applicable laws, but also be respectful of the wishes of individual parents,” he said. “This is very unique, and for us as a School District it’s a real challenge. This is a federally mandated test. The State doesn’t have a whole lot of latitude, either.”

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