Hate the STAAR Test? Opting Out Is Possible, But Not Easy

Editor's note: This story was originally published May 26, 2016. We're bringing it back because STAAR tests are scheduled this week.There aren’t many championing the STAAR test these days. The increasingly unpopular assessment has continued to take its lumps this spring, with test flaws, computer glitches and delivery hiccups angering parents and administrators around the state.One factor has managed to hold constant, though, even through all the foibles: Texas students keep on taking the test.Unlike opt-out movements that have sprung up in pockets around the nation, the number of Texas students and families refusing to take the STAAR is tiny. As few as 2,000 refused the test in 2015-16. That’s a tiny fraction compared with anti-test hotbeds such as New York – where 240,000 didn’t take the statewide assessment. In Colorado, 100,000 didn’t.Nationally, as many as 670,000 students didn’t take state assessments, according to estimates from test reform advocate the National Center for Fair & Open Testing.Why such a difference? State laws make skipping the STAAR an arduous process, especially in grades where student advancement is tied to STAAR performance. It can be done, but parents must be willing to put their child at risk of losing electives, getting additional instruction including summer school or, in extreme cases, being held back.STAAR opponents have made strides in chipping away at the assessment, but at the state, rather than local, level.“People talk about whether STAAR is effective or not,” said Round Rock attorney and anti-STAAR crusader Scott Placek. “Well, parents don’t have much of a voice past that. I think there would be a huge impact if we were able to show 10 percent or 15 percent of kids in this district or across the state refused to participate in this current system.”‘Just the way it is’When Jennifer Minuche and her family moved to Texas from California a few years ago, she didn’t know anything about the STAAR. That changed quickly when her oldest child didn’t test well on his fifth-grade math assessment.All of a sudden, Minuche started receiving notices from Frisco ISD that her son was receiving “accelerated instruction” and might have to take summer school if he didn’t pass on a retake six weeks later.While many of the STAAR’s high-stakes elements have been tamped down in recent legislative sessions, several key tests still remain. Fifth- and eighth-grade assessments essentially serve as exit exams for elementary and junior high, while five end-of-course exams do the same in high school.In fifth and eighth grade, students are not eligible for automatic promotion to the next grade if they fail the reading or math exam.“I didn’t understand how that was possible, since he was on the honor roll,” Minuche said. “That doesn’t make sense. And they were like, ‘That’s just the way it is.’ At that point, I was panicking. I never realized how crazy this all is.”The worst-case scenario never came to fruition; her son passed the math portion on a retest. But when it came time for her son to move up to Roach Middle School, she discovered that his chance at an elective had been lost. Instead of getting a class of his choosing, she said, he was placed into a “math lab,” intensive instruction for those who had struggled on the previous year’s STAAR.“That upset me, because we put so much emphasis in middle school on how great it’s going to be, and how many things you could learn in it. And then they take that elective away from you,” Minuche said. “So, I knew that next year, I wasn’t going to make him take the STAAR.”Minuche discovered a network of opt-out movements, loosely organized around the website txedrights.net, moderated by Placek, the Round Rock attorney. She has used form letters and how-to guides from that site to help opt her son out of STAAR exams for the past two years.When she posted a note about her family’s decision on NextDoor, a neighborhood-focused social networking website, she quickly received more than 20 messages from fellow parents asking how they could do the same.“All these parents are scared,” Minuche said. “I would say that 90 percent of the people out there think that [opting out] is illegal. They have no idea that you can send a letter, say you aren’t going to participate, and then go along with their life.”‘Not a school term’From the family’s perspective, the initial act of opting out is simple: either a student doesn’t show up during testing days or refuses to take the test when it’s administered. What transpires from that point, though, can be laborious – varying on district interpretations of state law. For exams that determine advancement, the choice to promote a student can eventually rest on a committee’s decision, not a test score.The Texas Education Agency states that a parental right to opt a child out of STAAR doesn’t exist. Section 26.010 of the Texas Education Code says, “A parent is not entitled to remove the parent’s child from a class or other school activity to avoid a test.”When The Dallas Morning News requested opt-out guidelines from the area’s 12 biggest districts, many quoted that line at the top of any policy.“As far as it goes, opt-out is a parent term, not a school term,” said Gary Nye, Frisco ISD’s director of assessment and accountability.Yet, refusing to take the STAAR isn’t impossible. How that process goes depends on two things: the relationship between parent and district, and the grade level of the student.From the district perspective, Nye said, the first thing schools want is a conversation, trying to determine the reason for missing the test.“In a lot of cases, they’re concerned because their kiddo may have stress related to the assessment itself,” Nye said. “So, in that case, we know we can now work with our counselors, and our counselors can work with our student in terms of coping strategies and stress-reduction strategies.”And not all STAAR tests are created equal.Because fifth-grade, eighth-grade and end-of-course exams are tied to either advancement or graduation, the policies surrounding them are much more stringent.The TEA provides rigid timelines. And there are multiple testing dates throughout the year, giving students who failed or missed exams a second and potentially third chance to pass.When a student fails to pass the first exam, state law requires school districts to provide them additional instruction in that subject area – trying to shore up concepts and strategies before the retest.For elementary and junior high students, if a second test is missed or failed, the school creates a grade placement committee; it eventually determines whether the student should be promoted.For high school students, two alternate paths to graduation are available. Students who have passed three of the five tests can still receive a diploma if a graduation committee decides that the student demonstrates proficiency in the failed subject. Students can also substitute other assessments – such as IB tests or the PSAT, SAT or ACT – to serve as a proxy for a STAAR score.In grades where the STAAR isn’t tied to advancement, though, what the district or state can do to stop parents who keep kids home on testing days is less severe.In 2009, the Legislature passed a measure that required districts to provide accelerated instruction to all students who didn’t pass (or take) the STAAR, whether in a high-stakes year or not. But if a student is on grade level academically, additional instruction may not be necessary.Truancy used to be the cudgel that districts used to keep students in testing seats. Yet, in the last legislative session, lawmakers removed criminal sanctions tied to truancy and changed how it’s recorded; Texas law now states that a child can’t have 10 or more unexcused absences in a six-month period. If that threshold is hit, the school district will refer the student to truancy court. Parents would probably receive a form letter about truancy if their child was held out for three days, but little else.Forcing parents to stay home with their children for extended absences can also be used as leverage by a district.In some districts, if parents want to ensure their child won’t be presented an exam or forced to sit for the duration of the test in a testing room, they would be required to hold their child out of school for the entire testing week. STAAR testing windows usually last a week, with two or three days for the test, followed by a few days allotted for makeup exams.But there are more districts willing to find a middle ground with families who are opting out, allowing kids to return to class during makeup days. Plano ISD’s policy goes even further, potentially allowing a student to be placed in an alternative setting if parents sent the district a formal letter in advance, stating their child will not participate.Plano ISD's Response to Parent Requesting Opt Out letterHouston ISD trustees passed a policy in 2014 creating an opt-out form for parents, and codifying that students who didn’t take the STAAR “will not be subject to negative consequences or disciplinary action.”The district declined to provide classroom instruction for those missing the test, but it was debated.“Essentially we weren’t willing to go that far,” Houston ISD board member Anna Eastman said. “But we wanted a way for parents to communicate to the school their intentions for opting out.”Placek called Houston ISD “a shining light in the state on how to work with parents on refusing the assessment.”He said that as a result of its progressive policies, the greater Houston area had more than 500 families opt out of tests this year, the largest concentration in the state.For Minuche, her first approach to school leadership at Roach Middle School wasn’t without a few hiccups.When her son was a sixth-grader, she informed the school of her intentions to opt out, and kept him home for the first three days of testing. But when he went back, she said, he was presented with a makeup test and told that even if he didn’t attempt to answer any questions, he needed to stay in the testing room for four hours. He eventually took a nap until the exam was over.This year, Minuche took a different tack. She challenged the school, arguing that guidelines don’t stipulate that students must stay in the testing room on makeup days. It worked. After missing three days, her son was still presented a test to decline, but was allowed to rejoin his class.‘Very slow and very organic’Is Minuche part of a growing trend in Texas? It’s almost impossible to determine.“I think they tell everyone, ‘You’re the first one,’ to try to make them see if they really want to do this,” Minuche said. “So I can’t tell if I’m the only one.”It doesn’t appear to be happening often in the Dallas area.Frisco, a district with approximately 53,000 students, had fewer than 20 students declining to take the exam, Nye said. Clint Bond, director of external communications at Fort Worth ISD, said anecdotally his office receives one or two calls per year regarding opting out. Irving ISD had four students decline the STAAR this school year, two of them siblings.The TEA doesn’t tabulate how many students refuse the test, said spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson.“‘Opting out’ is not an official reason for a blank score sheet,” Culbertson wrote. “We do not require the schools to report that to us.”Some students who opt out could be counted as absent; STAAR absences have been relatively stable year to year. Other students may be counted as having “taken” the test with zero correct responses, since they were presented the exam and refused it.Placek said the lack of clarity amounts to an act of suppression.“It’s deliberate on their part. They don’t want that number known,” Placek said. “They could easily track people who refused to complete the assessment, just like other states do. But instead, they choose to report those people having participated in the assessment. I think it’s disingenuous and strategic.”Whether or not Texas becomes a driving force in the opt-out movement, Placek said, is likely to depend on the numbers of students staying home hitting a critical mass.“If parents saw that 5,000 people across the state opted out, then maybe it would be 10,000 next year,” Placek said. “It’s been a very slow and very organic process.”Twitter: @corbettsmithDMN  Continue reading...

Copyright The Dallas Morning News
Contact Us