BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — The U.S. Education Department is not relenting on requirements to test students on math and language arts abilities, despite the end of No Child Left Behind, and it reminded some states that federal funding could be at stake if too many children skip the annual assessments.
But testing opponents say they're not giving up either, and after a surge in students opting out last year, they're looking for even more to sit out in the coming assessment season.
A letter from the federal department last month reminded state school chiefs that the requirement to test at least 95 percent of grade 3-8 students is still in place and will continue under the nation's new education law, passed in December.
Last year, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a group known as FairTest that's critical of standardized assessments, counted more than 640,000 students in over a dozen states who refused to take the assessments to protest the high-stakes consequences begun under No Child Left Behind.
The new Every Student Succeeds Act that was passed to replace NCLB leaves it to states how to handle schools that fall short in participation, but Ann Whalen, an assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, stressed in her letter that assessment requirements remain.
Whalen's Dec. 22 memo followed a series of individual requests for improvement plans from states at risk of falling short of the threshold in 2014-15. Letters went out to California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Illinois, Maine, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Washington and Wisconsin.
Most states responded with plans that stressed improving communication with parents and teachers about the importance of assessments. Several promised to downgrade a district or school's rating should they miss participation targets, or revoke eligibility for recognition awards, according to responses obtained by The Associated Press. None of the plans appeared to carry any financial consequence.
New York Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia described a host of initiatives after 20 percent of students didn't take the tests last year, which was about four times the number as the previous year. New York replaced test vendor Pearson with Questar to develop new test questions with more teacher input and shortened the assessments, Elia said. After complaints from teachers and parents that the state has moved too quickly on reforms, officials said results will be kept out of student transcripts and teacher evaluations through 2018.
"The letter ... was a serious letter from the U.S. D.O.E. indicating clearly that there are ramifications," Elia said at a budget hearing Wednesday, where she added that students will be able to take as much time as they need on the revised tests.
North Carolina Superintendent June St. Clair Atkinson said that while some participation targets weren't met last year, her state "stresses the expectation that all students participate in the state assessments."
"There is not an opt-out policy and when asked about opting out by parents and other stakeholders," she wrote, "the consistent response is that all students participate in the assessments."
While Elia and other commissioners said they were confident their plans would improve participation, Oregon Deputy Superintendent Salam Noor had doubts in light of a 2015 state law that formalized a parent's ability to opt-out a child by submitting a form.
"I am concerned (the law) will create greater challenges for Oregon school districts to meet participation requirements in state testing," Noor wrote.
Similar laws were vetoed in Delaware and Maine, said FairTest spokesman Bob Schaeffer, whose group says students are tested too much at the expense of productive learning. He criticized the Education Department's warning about funding consequences as "bluff and bluster" from Washington.
"To date, no district or state has ever been penalized for failing to have 95 percent participation," he said.
Neither the government's warnings nor states' plans would likely curb opt-outs this school year, Schaeffer said.
"The volume of testing remains the same, which many parents and educators view as overkill," he said, "and the high-stakes consequences for students have not been changed in all cases."
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said states need support from the Education Department during the transition, "not the threat of sanctions."
"Make no mistake," Weingarten wrote to Acting Secretary John King, "the opt-out movement — the reason that so many states did not meet the 95 percent participation requirement in 2014-15 — was a referendum on this administration's policies that created the culture of overtesting and punishment."