A Bill Protecting Parents’ Rights to Opt Out of Testing

Why we need a law that lets parents
opt their students out of the state test

Standardized test scores carry heavy consequences. The fate of teachers, schools, and districts can depend on the scores of children as young as third grade.

Some parents believe the tests will not help and may harm their children. Others want to demonstrate their opposition to the way tests are used. Many have both reasons for wanting to opt their children out of the tests.

Some states have laws that explicitly give parents this choice, but in Massachusetts, the law is unclear.

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education takes the position that the law forbids opting out. DESE justifies this stance partly on the basis of a paragraph of Mass. General Laws Chapter 69, Section 1I:

“… comprehensive diagnostic assessment of individual students shall be conducted at least in the fourth, eighth and tenth grades. Said diagnostic assessments shall identify academic achievement levels of all students in order to inform teachers, parents, administrators and the students themselves, as to individual academic performance.”

This clause only mentions three grades, not all seven grades of the current state tests or the nine grades of the proposed PARCC exams. Perhaps for this reason, DESE also relies on a much more indirect clause in the same section of Chapter 69:

“The board shall adopt a system for evaluating on an annual basis the performance of both public school districts and individual public schools.”

In a memo to superintendents dated Oct. 15, 2014, Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Mitchell Chester said principals must tell parents why their children should take the tests, but

“[i]f the building principal has provided this information to the parent and student and the student still refuses to participate in the state assessments, the principal should see to it that the student is engaged in an alternate educational activity and is not distracting other students during the testing period. In some cases it may be appropriate for the student to be removed from the testing room.”

The full memo is posted at http://bit.ly/chesteroptout.

Despite these instructions, some administrators continue to tell parents that they can not opt out. This may be partly because the school’s standing is in jeopardy if too many students opt out. To be rated “Level 1” by the state, a school needs at least 95 percent test attendance. “Level 2” requires 90 percent.

This legislation would make it clear that parents have the right to opt their children out of the state test. It would also remove those children from the school’s test attendance calculation so their action does not affect the result. Wisconsin has a similar law.

However, if students can opt out without hurting their school’s test attendance rate, some school officials may be tempted to suggest opting out to parents of students they believe are likely to score low. To avoid this possibility, the bill includes a clause barring school employees from encouraging parents to opt their children out, although it lets school employees to provide factual information.

The bill also allows parents to opt their children out of district-mandated standardized tests. Some districts mandate standardized tests as often as every six weeks, hoping to boost scores on the all-important state tests. Parents should have the right to ask that their children not have to endure these tests and the stress that often accompanies them.

The bill does not apply to tests that teachers themselves decide to give in order to help them meet the needs of each child.

In the long run, the state testing system should be redesigned to provide constructive feedback to students, teachers, and schools. Tests should not dominate teaching and learning. In the meantime, parents deserve the right to protect their children.