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Alaska lawmaker seeks legal protection for parents who reject standardized tests

  • Author: Tegan Hanlon
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published March 26, 2015

An Alaska lawmaker has introduced legislation that would write into law a parent's right to withdraw a child from state standardized exams, but the state Department of Education and Early Development said too many withdrawals could lower school ratings and legalizing refusals could potentially affect federal funding.

Currently, Alaska students who do not take standardized exams do not face repercussions, but no law says the refusal is allowable, according to Deputy Education Commissioner Les Morse.

"Our expectation is that districts give (the exam) to all of their students," Morse said Thursday. "There might be a student that doesn't take it, but that's usually pretty rare."

Next week, Alaska's school districts will launch a new computer-based statewide exam for students in grades three through 10.

Sen. Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla, said his office has received a growing number of calls from Alaskans concerned about online sharing of personal data and test scores. Others feel that standardized exams measure schools but do not benefit their children, he said.

In response, Dunleavy said, he posed a series of questions to the Department of Education and, in a lengthy Facebook post Wednesday, reported that the department said it would not penalize a student who did not take a standardized exam, nor would the decision affect students' advancement to the next grade level.

"The bottom line is that parents are the ultimate authority regarding their children's upbringing and education," Dunleavy's post said.

Dunleavy's bill, which has been referred to committee, will require school boards to adopt policies that would allow parents to object to and withdraw their children from not only standardized exams but also classes, tests or programs they believe are harmful to their children or that question their beliefs on human reproduction, health or sexual education.

The bill also requires written permission from parents for all student surveys and questionnaires.

At the root of the bill is parental authority, Dunleavy said. While schools should have authority to administer statewide exams, he said, parents should have authority to say no and be protected.

"And that's the way I think it should be," he said. "That's America. That's a free society."

Heidi Embley, Anchorage School District communications director, said the school district has not in the past had a noticeable number of parents keeping children home due to state standardized testing. Parents who do not want their children to take the exams must write a note.

"We don't encourage parents to have their student miss any assessment, but it is up to the parent to do what is best for their family," she said.

Across the Lower 48, "opt-out" movements protesting federally mandated standardized tests have gained momentum. But Alaska, so far, hasn't seen large groups of students not taking exams, said Morse, the deputy education commissioner.

Morna McDermott, one of the founders of Florida-based United Opt Out, said the national group has an organizer in nearly every state, but Alaska is not one of them. "We get letters every day from all over the country with all kinds of horrible, real stories, but nothing from Alaska is coming," she said.

"Maybe it's just more insular," she said. "Obviously it matters to someone or that politician wouldn't have put it on the bill."

The new computer-based statewide exam called Alaska Measures of Progress will test on new academic standards adopted by the state in 2012.

Ninety-five percent of students -- or all but two students in very small districts -- must take the statewide standardized exams to meet the federal participation requirement, said Brian Laurent, data management supervisor at the Department of Education.

Last school year, only 18 of the state's nearly 500 schools did not meet the requirement. The school with the lowest participation had 14 of 18 students take the exam. The year before, 24 schools did not meet the participation requirement, according to data from the Department of Education.

At schools that do not meet the participation requirement, the state counts absent students as "not proficient," which could hurt public perception of the schools, Laurent said.

Morse said federal education dollars could be at risk if the state systematically excludes students from the statewide exams. That concern could evolve if the state legalizes exam refusal.

"I would be worried about anything that could be perceived as a systematic exclusion, and we would want to examine that with that lens," he said.

Marcy Merrill, a 41-year-old mother of three in Anchorage, said she talked with her children this year about state standardized exams, telling them that if they did not want to take the exams, they did not have to.

She said she doesn't feel there is enough data supporting the validity of the new computer-based exams and that, overall, the exams detract from classroom learning.

"There's very little benefit to the student," she said. "It's taking student time, and I would prefer more time spent while my child is in the classroom on instruction."

Her 15-year-old son, Connor, opted not to take the science standardized exam Tuesday at Dimond High School. Or at least he tried. Connor said he told the proctor he would not take the exam, but he did not have a note from a parent. After much discussion, he was handed the test.

"I thought it was kind of senseless to spend three hours on a test that wasn't really going to help our grade," he said.

Merrill has since provided her son with five copies of a signed letter allowing him to opt out of a standardized exam.

Morse said the statewide standardized exams are imperative because they hold schools accountable. He said the exams provide parents with a report card on their children's schools.

As far as data concerns go, he said, "we've always had the data, we've always handled it responsibly."

NOTE: This article has been edited to reflect that Sen. Dunleavy's bill would require parental permission for all student surveys and questionnaires, not just those that delve into personal and private family affairs.

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