March 3, 2014

My Experience Opting Out of Testing For My 7th Grader in Cheshire, and a Sample Opt-out Letter

I have already opted out my 7th grader from the SBAC exams, and actually, all computer-administered exams, here in Cheshire. I did not speak to the Superintendent, since my communication started with the Curriculum Coordinator, who had been given my name by Triumph Testing. You can learn the specifics of how that happened here (opens in new window).

Shortly thereafter I received a note from the school telling me that the kids would be taking the OLSAT exams. I immediately wrote a letter to my son's principal, his teachers, and the Curriculum Coordinator, who I had already been in touch with. It read:
To the wonderful teachers and administrators of my dear son _______,

I am writing to let you know that I am opting-out of _______'s participation of the OLSAT this week. I had previously been in contact with [Curriculum Coordinator] regarding my concerns with having any test data on ________ (including actual test taking) recorded via computer, since the changes to the FERPA laws make it impossible for anyone in Cheshire to assure me with utmost certainty that his personally identifiable information is secure. Deb did tell me that as soon as the district lawyer provides her report, in layman's terms, of what the changes in FERPA mean for the district, that she would share that report with me. But until that time, ______ is not to take any tests via computer, or take any tests that will be graded or evaluated via computer or any source outside of his teacher who administers it.

I will be informing ________ that he is not to take the test, and that if he is given one he is not to work on it. Please be sure to provide an area where he can read or do other work that you provide for him, during the testing time.

Respectfully,

I then received this response from the Curriculum Coordinator:
I want to make sure you know that the OLSAT test is not administered on the computer. It is a test Cheshire pays fit and uses.  It is not a state requirement nor is it a statewide test.  I also need to remind you that all of our assessment results data, teacher tests included, are stored on our servers

I wrote a long response to her, and actually posted it here (opens in new window) for others to read. I didn't include my last paragraph to her on that blogpost though, which read:
Finally, please note that this letter speaks only to the privacy issue in regards to my children, and does not speak to my opposition to the inordinate amount of assessments being conducted in compliance with the Common Core that Connecticut is not even required to adopt since we did not receive any money through Race to the Top, and Cheshire is not required to adopt since we are a locally controlled state when it comes to education; that is a whole other letter.

Sincerely,

The Curriculum Coordinator wrote back:
Thanks for your reply.  To clarify, Cheshire's does not share OLSAT, SRI, or Triumph data with other districts, the state, or the federal government.

We do share student attendance and special education data with the state.

In addition, the state gives us their state tests to administer to students.  In these situations the CSDE has access to their own tests and its data, whether whether they are administered by paper or online.

To which I responded:
Thanks. So am I understanding that Cheshire does not store the results of the OLSAT, SRI, or Triumph testing on our servers? That it's all kept in paper files that the state does not have access to?

What about my son's IEP? That was created during our PPT [meeting] directly into a computer program, so does that reside on Cheshire servers too? Or is that stored in paper files that the state has no access to?

As I said, nothing would make me happier than to be proven wrong on all of this.

The Curriculum Coordinator wrote back:
The OLSAT results are stored on the Pearson server and on our district server.  The SRI results are stored only on our district server.  Triumph scores are stored on the Triumph server and on our district server.  None of the data from these three tests are shared with the state or federal government.

IEPs are stored on our districts server.  Whether or not they are also stored on the vendor's server as well as the state's server is a question answered best by Tracey Nolan-Hussey, the secondary special education supervisor.

That email was received on December 1, 2013, and I did not reply.

I next received an email from Deb on December 11th that said:
We heard back from the district’s attorney about the two questions you asked regarding student assessments earlier this fall.  Your first question related to FERPA regulations and your second question asked about student participation is state, district, and classroom tests.

The first aspect of the lawyer’s research confirmed what you already knew; there have been changes to the FERPA legislation. Her research also revealed the specifics of this change.  Under the new FERPA amendment, an educational agency (such as the Cheshire Public Schools) now has the authority to disclose student information to the federal government if such a disclosure is in relation to an evaluation or audit of a federally funded program.  To date, Cheshire has never had an audit by the federal government and our only federally funded, curriculum-related program is at Darcey.

Your second question related to parents’ ability to refuse participation in some or all student assessments.  The lawyer’s research reveals that there is no federal or state law that gives parents the right to “opt-out” of some or all assessments, either paper-pencil or computer generated/stored assessments.  For students enrolled in a public school, the courts have held that school districts maintain control over the curriculum, and this includes testing and assessment.  Although parents have the right to opt-out of certain aspects of the curriculum, e.g. dissecting and sex education,  this right does not extend to assessment.

I hope her diligent work addresses your questions

To which I responded:
Thanks so much for getting back to me with clarification that my concerns regarding the privacy of my children are warranted.

As for my “question related to parents’ ability to refuse participation in some or all student assessments”, I never had a question about this. While it is true that “there is no federal or state law that gives parents the right to “opt-out” of some or all assessments”, there is also no federal or state law specifically saying that I can’t.

It’s actually very timely that your response would come the day after the CEA published a blog post entitled More CT Parents Opting-Out of State Testing, which contains a link to a document entitled Background, History, and Suggested Protocols for Addressing Parent Requests for Students to ‘Opt-Out’ of Mandated State Testing dated December 2013 from the SEA. The last protocol states that when a “Parent writes back to the district a letter explaining that they have read and understood the district’s letter, but insist that the child not be tested… the district generally does not test the student and the student is counted as ‘absent’ (for purposes of testing), which negatively impacts the participation rate for the district. The state, to date, has not done any follow-up on these cases.” So since I’m aware of all the rest, in the case of my children, we can just skip it all and go right to that: please consider this my letter stating that I understand your letter, and I insist that my kids not be tested.

Just to confirm, my children are both old enough to understand that they are not to take the tests, and will not do so even if put in front of them, my 7th grader because he prefers not to go back to homeschooling, and my high school junior because he fully comprehends the issues.

Please understand that I am truly grateful for the top-notch education my children are getting in Cheshire and I know they would do fine on the tests if I allowed them to participate; my concerns lie in the undermining of the privacy laws for our children, the increased data collecting on them, and the increasing federal intrusion on our local school system through various reforms and waivers imposed upon, and accepted at, the state level.

Sincerely,

The last one I received from the Curriculum Coordinator read:
Thanks for your email.  State regulations do require that the principals follow the protocol, so they will.

A few days later I went to a PTA meeting at the middle school. After the meeting the principal pulled me aside and told me that he had been forwarded all that communication but he was not going to go through with all the protocol. His main concern was what he was going to do with all the kids who are opting out since they are increasing in numbers.

So that takes care of my 7th grader. I'll blog about my experience with the high school junior starting tomorrow.

I do want to mention though, that I have problems with the form letters that are out there, my biggest one being the statement:
Moreover, the Common Core Smarter Balanced Assessment (SBAC) are merely field tests, this year, which measure test questions, not students; and do not even have a mastery level set yet. Thus they are not the type of required tests contemplated by state law.

This is, in my opinion, NOT a good thing to include, whether it be true or not, because it leaves the door open for testing next year. Especially when the next section says:
As the Parent/Guardian of____________________________________ (Name of child), I have decided that it is not in his/her best interest to take this year’s Common Core Smarter Balanced Assessment Field Test (SBAC)."

Why would we say "this year's"? The idea is to get a statement in about our feelings on the testing for this year and every year moving forward. So if I needed to do it again, I would write:
Dear Principal _____________,

I am writing to let you know that my son ________ is not to take any tests that will be graded or evaluated via computer or any source outside of his teacher who administers it. This includes SBAC assessments.

Please note that this is not a "request" and that I am already aware that "the ESEA does not allow parents to exempt their children from taking the state assessments." However, the ESEA also does not dis-allow it. Nor do Connecticut General Statutes. I am therefore perfectly within my legal rights to refuse to allow my son to take these tests.

I will be informing ________ that he is not to take online tests, and that if he is given one he is not to work on it. Please be sure to provide an area where he can read or do other work that you provide for him during the testing time. 

If there's one thing that I learned about schools while we were homeschooling, it's that I don't have to tell them my reasons for the decisions I make regarding my children. So I wouldn't include any of that in my letter to the principal. And yes, I'd send it to the principal and not the superintendent, since it has already been my experience that they don't always agree on opting-out and the superintendent could very well be bypassed altogether.

Questions? Ask away...

9 comments:

  1. First, the disclaimer. I serve on a local Board of Education but what I am commenting here is my own view and not any official statement on behalf of the Board I serve on.

    As of today, your point covers the huge dilemma our school systems are faced with today. A groundswell of parents, guided by Stop the Common Core in CT and others, filing letters to opt out of SBAC testing on the eve of it's administration in the field. On the other side the State Department of Education, telling those same Districts that they must administer the test, and that if they fall short of a participation rate yet to be shared in detail with Superintendents they will be penalized. The legal system moves at a slow pace, so we aren't likely to find out who's "right" in all of this for a while.

    This is my prediction. Parents opting out will see no penalty to their children or themselves, save for District results that won't reflect their student's performance potentially impacting a benchmark they may need to achieve in the future. Districts, on the other hand, will face severe penalties. My guess is State and Federal funding will be withheld from Districts with participation rates that fall below the arbitrary number we will be assigned by the State Department of Education. Falling funding will place increased pressure on the local towns to come up with the costs to operate their school Districts. Since increasing taxes is not possible in many communities (mine included), deep cuts will be made to balance a budget. Mandated programs will need to continue, but funding for those programs will be reduced by the penalties assessed. So towns will have to find ways to self fund the support required for 504, IEP and other programs which must be maintained.

    So what will schools cut to make that possible? The stuff that is important to a community but not required by law. What does that leave? Athletics, music and the arts, technical education, world language, extra curricular activities - all the parts of an educational process that deliver well rounded students beyond just learning the ABC's and 1-2-3's.

    This isn't stated as a threat. Just my view of reality. The only lever the State and Federal DOE have to play with is financial support for the programs they mandate. And if the past is an indicator of the future, they will use that lever to the fullest extent they legally can.

    I wish all parents the best in their efforts to be their own child's advocate. IT's the role you must play, and is the same role I play for my four daughter's above my role in any other fashion. I just hope in the process we don't find our public schools left in a smoking pile with the scars of a battle we are truly caught in the crossfire from.

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    1. Kevin, thanks so much for your comment, though it saddens me how much truth is there.

      I agree that the legal system runs at a slow pace, but I am hopeful that parents can force it to move just a bit more quickly. So far we are having success, as evidenced by the fact that the GOP forced the hand of the CSDE to have a hearing where we can all speak our minds. Unfortunately, till that point, opting-out is the only way to have our voices heard by the state, who clearly has no interest in otherwise hearing from us.

      It is also my hope that LEAs, when forced to cut budgets due to loss of funding, will themselves rise up in protest against the state rather than simply passing on the cost to their districts; certainly as that becomes the case, more parents who may not have been otherwise involved, may wake up and participate in the conversation.

      And in the meantime, as you said, we must all continue to advocate for our own children.

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    2. Hello Kevin,

      I appreciate thoughtful discourse, but want to comment on a couple of statements you made in your comment. The first is that "we are not likely to find out whose "right" for a while". This assumes that case-law sets the standard for right and wrong in this country and since John Marshall, that has unfortunately all too often been the case. What's "right" lies with individual liberties, versus an opinion that government knows what's best for the individual. If we lose the fight on this one point, we've lost it all.

      The second is the idea that school districts will pay in the form of cuts to funding by the State and Federal Governments. I too have children in Public Education, but are we better to fool ourselves into thinking these governments are benevolent, when in fact they take our tax-dollars and then hold it over our heads with mandates that we the people may not agree with? Should such a thing happen, then the towns should do what we do in households and pay for the things that the town can afford and nothing more - including mandates.

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  2. Dear Mom in Cheshire,
    Please Share - This is bigger than most of us even know. The state of Connecticut is building a P20 database which, in my opinion, has very little to do with teaching and student success, and more about someone's vision of a workforce ready society. After finding these documents online about the infrastructure that is being build to receive and connect data on our children from preschool through college, I sent this to our State Representative on 2/28/14 prior to the Common Core Informational Forum:
    *************
    Dear State Representative Gail Lavielle,
    I know data is not on the list of concerns for today, but in doing some research, I see that the Department of Labor, the Department of Higher Ed and the State Department of Education are building the infrastructure and processes for creating a p20 (preschool through workforce database, including the protocols around which that data can be queried, and by whom.

    In the past, not necessarily a problem. But with the changes to FERPA, there is greater latitude about whom and what organizations may have access to this data at a personally identifiable level. This also opens up to reporting PII data to the federal government. Effectively, it would appear that we are creating one huge digital footprint on all of our residents, and as other states are doing the same, this seems like a national database. I don’t know what they are putting into it, but in other states, they refer to the “400 points” of data which includes lots of personal details on students and families.

    I understand reporting and tracking of programs for effectiveness are needed at a macro level, but there is so much potential here for misuse. This is like having a “credit history” only it is a “personal history” and yet there are no controls for families to see what is in it or even chances to dispute or correct. The security risks are huge.

    This concerns me greatly. If you have time, please look over these documents (I don’t fully understand the legalese) but this leads me to want to know much more about the State of Connecticut P20-WIN database. It may have started with good intentions, but the changes to federal privacy laws and many data breaches make this much more risky: http://www.ct.edu/initiatives/p20

    Feel free to share.

    Much thanks for all you do.

    Maria

    These are the documents I found that concern me:

    Department of Labor - http://www.ct.edu/files/pdfs/P20-WIN-DOL-MainMOA-signed.pdf
    State Department of Ed - http://www.ct.edu/files/pdfs/P20-WIN-SDE-MainMOA-signed.pdf
    Department of Higher/Board of Regents - http://www.ct.edu/files/pdfs/P20-WIN-BOR-MainMOA-signed.pdf

    Management guide: http://www.ct.edu/files/pdfs/P20-WIN-Appendix-C-Query-Management-Procedure.pdf

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    1. Maria, thanks for your comment. The P20 Database is actually already built. And it is just a matter of time before data is uploaded from LEAs to the state automatically.

      You can read more specifics about the P20-WIN problem here:http://commoncoreinct.blogspot.com/2013/11/if-not-inbloom-then-who.html and here: http://commoncoreinct.blogspot.com/search/label/The%20Privacy%20Issue

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  3. Great blog. Thank you for all that you do.
    Trying to find out when exactly the testing will be in our district. Our principal responded to my email inquiry saying that schedules are in the process of being developed and a Parent Night is being planned to share information with parents. If I understand correctly, the Smarter Balanced (field test) assessments are to be administered this spring. But when exactly? How many days of testing are there? How many hours per day are dedicated to testing? etc. Is it standard for all schools or do districts/schools decide test dates, times, etc?
    Can you help with this at all? Thanks!

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    1. A Parent Night being planned to share information with parents? That is AWESOME! Any chance you are willing to share what town?

      Here in Cheshire my high school junior's school sent a notice home with exact times for exams, with revised bus schedules and so on, but I have not received exact dates for the middle school yet, beyond this generic letter https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B9LPSNhbb5uQR1NBdU9xSF9KeEU/edit?usp=sharing telling us that "The assessments will require 7-8 hours of student time... The assessment will be administered over multiple days, with no student participating in more than two 45 minute testing sessions per day." My middle schooler is already opted out though, so I haven't concerned myself with the actual dates.

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    2. Well, I don't know how informative this planned Parent Night will be. I know it's supposed to be about the SmarterBalanced Assessment. But, I don't know whether the school or district will have any information for parents regarding opting out. I also don't know how many other parents in our school (if any) have concerns about these assessments and Common Core. Maybe I'll find out at this upcoming meeting!

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    3. It's highly unlikely that the Parent Night will be informative. And it's highly unlikely that they will say anything about opting out. But if they do, they will only say that you can't.

      The awesome part is that you can use this opportunity to formulate a question or two that will really put them in the hot seat!

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