It’s that time of year again when school districts across the state begin extensive preparations for the annual statewide assessment. Students take multiple practice exams, losing important instructional time, so they score well to make districts and schools look their best. The exam is given to students in grades 3 through 8, and 11 over several weeks.
The specific exam has changed multiple times in recent years. For several years NH administered the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP), then changed exams to align to Common Core (College and Career Readiness Standards) using the Smarter Balanced Assessment (SBA). As of spring 2016, 11th graders began taking the Scholastic Achievement Test (SAT) as the statewide assessment, which also aligned to Common Core that year. Several districts utilize Performance Assessment of Competency Education (PACE) as an integrated testing system. Although NH rolled out a new online testing delivery system, AIR, in spring 2018, the Smarter Balanced Assessment remains in place. Education is full of acronyms – this whole thing is referred to as NHSAS meaning the New Hampshire Statewide Assessment System.
There are many reasons why parents may not wish their children to participate in the statewide assessments including privacy concerns, the tests have no proven academic or diagnostic value, results are released months after children have moved to another class, loss of instructional time to test prep and testing, and the stress and pressures of testing. The tests are computerized and adaptive, meaning that the questions change based on how the child answers the previous questions. It also is different from student to student.
For years families have refused their children’s participation in the annual statewide assessment, but often faced challenges and out-right harassment from teachers and principals for doing so. One child was tested expressly against his IEP and then threatened with truancy if not present on testing days. Other districts deliberately initiated conflict among divorced parents to try to bully families into compliance.
As of summer 2018, refusing participation in the statewide assessment is expressly allowed in NH law with HB 1744. It was the culmination of a multi-year effort. While school districts are required to administer the annual assessments, it explicitly says students are not compelled to participate. Schools may have lower participation rates, but are otherwise not penalized. Schools must provide an alternative educational activity during testing time that is agreed upon by the parents or legal guardians. This new law breaks the stranglehold on our students and teachers.
NH’s new law is fully consistent with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), acknowledges parents’ rights to refuse their children’s participation in the statewide assessments. In section 1111(e)(2) it says,
(A) IN GENERAL.— At the beginning of each school year, a local educational agency that receives funds under this part shall notify the parents of each student attending any school receiving funds under this part that the parents may request, and the local educational agency will provide the parents on request (and in a timely manner), information regarding any State or local educational agency policy regarding student participation in any assessments mandated by section 1111(b)(2) and by the State or local educational agency, which shall include a policy, procedure, or parental right to opt the child out of such assessment, where applicable.
And section 1111(b)(2)(K) reads,
‘(K) RULE OF CONSTRUCTION ON PARENT RIGHTS.— Nothing in this paragraph shall be construed as preempting a State or local law regarding the decision of a parent to not have the parent’s child participate in the academic assessments under this paragraph.
Even with the new law in place, some principals and superintendents are reluctant to accept families’ refusal to have their children participate in the testing. They claim that the state and districts risk funding if they do not meet the 95% minimum participation rate. To date not a single district or state has lost federal funding due to low participation rates. This is a threat by the US DOE to ensure compliance, but it is the last in a long line of possible consequences. The federal DOE exerts tremendous pressure on states to coerce cooperation. In 2015, very few districts in New York state met the required 95% participation; they had an average of only 80% participation and still did not face a cut in federal funds. The FAQ by the American Federation for Teachers also acknowledges that the stakes will not be so high for states and districts to meet the 95% participation threshold.
The NH Department of Education issued a technical advisory in October 2018 about the new law.
This new language formally puts into State law the ability of a parent to exempt his/her student from taking any of the required statewide assessments (math, English language arts and/or science). It also tells a school and school district that they are allowed to accept a parent’s exemption notification (signed form) of his/her student from taking the statewide assessment. School districts must ensure they provide a form for a parent to sign if the parent wants to exempt his/her student from taking the assessment. Finally, if a parent exempts his/her student from taking the statewide assessment, the school district and parent must agree upon an alternative educational activity during the testing period. It is recommended that the agreed upon alternative activity is written on the form that will be signed by the parent, along with an acknowledgement statement that no scores or summary of individual student performance, based on the statewide assessment, will be provided to the parents of the exempted student (a sample template is attached).
The department also created a refusal form that families may use to remove their children from the statewide assessment. Although the form is not required, it is available here and school districts may be more inclined to accept it with less difficulties.
The state also recognizes special considerations for non-participation in the statewide assessment, referred to as State Approved Special Considerations (SASC). To obtain this consideration, families must request it to the NH Department of Education Bureau of Assessment and Accountability for approval and before the last day of the assessment period.
Refusing is a School Choice Issue
Common Core (aka College and Career Readiness Standards) is a threat to school choice because the aligned high-stakes tests can readily drive standards and curriculum choices for public (including charters) and private schools as well as home education programs. Given that it has the potential for more standardization and uniformity of educational opportunities, resisting it and the aligned testing, and informing families of Common Core’s short-comings are critical to protecting school choice. Common Core has also led to declining academic achievement, which is a primary factor why families seek educational options. Refusing the assessment is also a way to shift the accountability away from testing to parents.
Although many states have abandoned Common Core, the most recent is Florida, New Hampshire remains entangled with these controversial standards, driven by the aligned statewide assessment. NH districts have the authority to adopt or reject Common Core standards, particularly through curriculum purchases. However, because districts and schools are motivated to perform well, Common Core remains in place across the Granite State.
This Education Next article is an excellent source of background information on Common Core.