Third Way Take|Education   3 Minute Read

Why We Need 95% of Students to Take Tests

Published July 2, 2015

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It’s hard to imagine amidst the current news frenzy about parents and students “opting out” of school tests that parents were begging for their kids to be tested not so long ago. That’s because many schools across the country regularly excluded certain groups of students from yearly tests in order to inflate their overall performance. Students with disabilities or others who teachers or administrators worried wouldn’t perform well were encouraged to take a day off, go to the library, hit the playground, or do anything other than sit for the exams that every other student was taking. And parents of those excluded students were denied an opportunity to know how their children were faring, and whether or not their school was meeting their children’s needs.

In the heat of school testing season, many students, parents, teachers, and policymakers have begun to exhibit a particularly dangerous form of amnesia. While a small but vocal group of parents, primarily in affluent suburban areas, are now agitating to get their children out of tests, parents and policymakers alike have too quickly forgotten what happened before participation was required. As the Senate prepares to consider a No Child Left Behind (NCLB) update, it would behoove us all to take a quick trip back in the time machine.

Passed in 2001, NCLB required school districts and states to test 95% of all students and 95% of all students within each subgroup (like students with disabilities, low income students, or African American students) and then report on that data. Today, this 95% requirement is still the law, and the Department of Education has reiterated that it does not allow states to exclude students who “opt out” from that 95% threshold—and falling below it could mean a loss of federal dollars. But what did the picture look like before that requirement was enacted? At the end of the 2000-2001 school year, only one state—Kansas—tested 95% or more of their students with disabilities. Indeed, data collection on students with disabilities was so spotty that even though 16 states provided some data on participation rates, only five states could provide data that was statistically reliable. Among those states were West Virginia, Connecticut, and Idaho, who reported that only 30%, 60%, and 68% of their students with disabilities were being tested, respectively.

Fast forward four years. By 2004-2005, 46 states and D.C. provided statistically reliable participation data for students with disabilities on regular assessments in reading and math at all levels—precisely because of NCLB’s 95% participation requirement. And the rates skyrocketed. Looking again at West Virginia, Connecticut, and Idaho as examples: by 2005, a whopping 93%, 90%, and 97% of students with disabilities were being tested in those states respectively. Ensuring that students with disabilities were participating in assessments not only gave parents important data about how their kids were doing compared to their peers, it also guaranteed that school districts were held accountable for their entire student populations, not just the portion that consistently fared well on the tests. For far too long, states could turn a blind eye to the utter exclusion of these students. The participation requirement meant districts could no longer urge or even require certain students to stay home on testing day, which effectively rendered them invisible.

After more than a decade of solid data reporting and collection, some are itching to rewind the clock, taking our education system back to a time when some kids—particularly students with disabilities—could easily be shunted to the sidelines. But proposing that students who “opt out” should not be counted towards the 95% required participation rate is a dangerous gamble. What would prevent district and school leaders from encouraging parents to keep their kids at home on testing days, or simply encouraging kids to take an extra recess instead of a test? What would keep schools from hiding historically marginalized students behind the performance of their well-to-do peers? The truth is that we can’t protect these kids if the 95% participation threshold is rendered meaningless.

As testing opt-out fever threatens to spread, lawmakers should be reminded that these requirements were put into place for good reason. Encouraging parents to opt out of tests could undermine the rights of others who fought so hard for their children to be included. Perhaps that chilling reminder can help break the “opt out fever” before it spreads too far.

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