From Inclusion to Opting Out: Parents Getting Their Way

The current standardized testing opt-out movement is a departure from what some parents of special needs students have lobbied for in the past. Examining case law in special education reveals a trend towards increasing inclusion in every area of student life. The opt-out movement follows the opposite trajectory, but it remains part of a larger trend that includes general education. Parents want control over their children’s education to an unprecedented degree.

Recently, parents of students with and without IEPs have been petitioning for their children to be exempted from taking tests aligned with the Common Core State Standards. The tests of concern are the Smarter Balanced Assessments (SBA) and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). Despite differing origins, each test is part of an initiative supported by the U.S. Department of Education to gauge student preparedness according to the Common Core. States have their own agendas for the tests, mostly involving increased school accountability. Reception by parents has been icy.

Most education professionals agree these tests are inappropriate for many students with IEPs. The tests would be unduly difficult for them and wouldn’t yield useful information. Parents of students in general education are adopting parts of this reasoning. They’ve been standing united with parents of students with IEPs in demanding exemption for their children. The given reasons vary. Popular claims include lost instructional time, stress caused by tests, and irrelevancy for students. Movement supporters have many strong points. They’re having profound influence, as opt-out rates across the nation have been soaring. Parents don’t like these tests and they’re letting states know it.

Regarding students with IEPs, the noisy refusal seems somewhat arbitrary. Alternate assessment has been part of the IDEA since its inception. Such testing has been reserved for students who can’t meaningfully participate in statewide assessments. Mandated testing of these students supposedly will ensure school accountability by forcing schools to provide instruction in tested skills. This is somewhat redundant. Progress monitoring according to the IEP already does this in alignment with the specific domains IEP teams have agreed are most relevant. A well-written and faithfully followed IEP almost negates the need for additional assessment. Although the IDEA has never stated how states should provide alternate assessments, it has stated that alternate assessments must be available.

Different alternate assessments are used from state to state. All are invasive to administer and few provide data that stringent progress monitoring wouldn’t provide. Alternate assessment results never exactly fit with general education results. Advocates for inclusion should be happy that all students have the opportunity to be assessed, even if the assessments are questionably relevant.

Students don’t all have to be assessed, though. The law might state this, but practice states otherwise. Students with IEPs always have had the potential to be exempted, at least through educational blackmailing. States insist on assessment for all students, but federal law trumps this by defending whatever a team puts in an IEP. Beyond exemption for religious reasons, parents have been able to successfully (if not completely legally) request exemption for various issues, such as anxiety or behavior. A letter from a psychiatrist is often enough to convince an IEP team to exempt a student. The IDEA doesn’t expressly state parents can do this. It expresses the contrary, actually. However, if a parent manages to convince an IEP team to include an exemption, overriding this can create a legal fight a district might choose not to engage. The legality becomes grey when the statement is in the IEP. This can upset administrators and confuse state testing monitors, but if the IEP states an exemption, not granting this is denying a mandated entitlement. Parents across several states have made this work.

A small minority of students qualifies to take alternate assessments. Per the push for inclusion, most students with IEPs are expected to take statewide tests. IEP teams (including parents) have the flexibility to greatly influence the testing experience. Schools officials are likely to indulge parent requests to add multiple accommodations to testing conditions. Accommodations might be intrusive, but they give students with IEPs the best chance of scoring on par with their non-disabled peers. Administrators want this for the sake of preserving averages. Sometimes it works. The degree of allowable accommodations (especially in math) for some tests can allow special education students to perform suspiciously well. The tests might remain inappropriate, but the accommodations can make even inappropriate tests much less stressful for students.

For general educations students, the path to opting out hasn’t been as clear. Aside from school-aged convicts serving adult sentences and those claiming religious exemption, nearly all students have had to take whatever tests states have used to determine progress. Parents have been seeking loopholes in recent initiatives. Some have been seeking special education services for their children, hoping to invoke advantages allowed by special education law. Other parents have been pursuing Section 504 Service Agreements to get accommodations for issues such as depression, anxiety, or attention disorders. These are invasive measures to take just to avoid a test.

As parents of both special education and general education students have pointed out, the SBAs and PARCC assessments have faults. True as this may be, in the short term, opting out won’t solve all the problems the tests cause. States and districts will lose money by purchasing tests parents refuse to let students take. Unless the tests are eradicated, the same amount of instructional time is going to be lost whether or not a particular student is exempted. For the immediate future, the majority will still prepare for and take the tests. Many states tie teacher and administrator evaluations to test results. The opt-out movement hurts this, so states and districts are going to fight it. Huge obstacles remain for the movement, assuming the cohesive goal is the elimination of the tests. Is it?

For some, the push to opt-out might be more near-sighted than this. Outspoken movement leaders want the tests stopped. Others merely want choice. Anecdotes from parents on the forefront do reveal politically charged motivations, such as opposition to commercial interests involved in testing and criticisms about unfairness to recent immigrants. These anecdotes also include more personal and familiar sentiments. Parents of special education students want their children to be included until they don’t want them to be included. When it suits their purposes, parents of general education students want their children recognized as having exceptionalities, using sudden health issues as leverage. Criticisms of transparency and flexibility fall under the same category. Many parents seem to want something simpler than a nationwide policy change. They want control.

Control over testing is a subset of parents desiring control over their children’s schooling. Many parents want increased control over content and methodology. Some want this to the point of seeking homeschooling. They want control over safety and logistics. Increasing numbers of parents drive their kids to school, have them carry mobile devices at all times, and enroll them in constant supervised activities. Motivations vary from parent to parent and assumptions about motivations are unfair. Actions indicate the current cohort of parents want schools to be a customizable service.

Now, is this bad? Some would argue that per the tax dollars spent and per the stakes involved for their children, parents should have great say in what schools do. Others would counter argue that the purpose of elected government and school boards is to sort out matters for the less-informed public. The difficulty is determining how much choice and sway parents should have. Control over test participation might make some sense, but what about control over curricula and delivery? Individualization is ideal, but delivering this on a large scale creates its own problems. One could imagine scenarios in which parents select from menus of what they want their children to experience. Should they be trusted to make good choices? How will schools program for this or have feasible ways of measuring progress and demonstrating accountability?

Such musings might seem facetious, but the opt-out movement could eventually affect policy making and implementation. It could alter school autonomy. Parents have the power to get their way. Special education law is historic proof of this. Special education is also proof of how a microcosmic direct democracy can lead to immense complexity from which schools can’t opt-out.

From Inclusion to Opting Out: Parents Getting Their Way

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