Lawmakers protest penalty for standardized test opt-out schools

  • Danika Tyminski, the Sixth Grade teacher at Swift River School in New Salem, works with students on a writing project last month. Last year Tyminski taught many of the same students in Swift River’s Fifth Grade class, all of whom declined to take the PARCC exam. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

The state’s decision to downgrade the accountability rating of some schools based on standardized test opt-out movements is both “perverse” and unfair, Senate President Stanley Rosenberg and eight other lawmakers said in a letter calling for a one-year moratorium on the practice.

Rosenberg, an Amherst Democrat, and his colleagues wrote to Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester to protest the state’s linking of school accountability rating to participation rates on the PARCC exam — one that officials scrapped last year in favor of developing a new test, but that was still administered to students this spring.

“The purpose of this letter is to point out a unique injustice that our districts are facing due to lower student participation rates on the PARCC exam in a year when state education officials had already publicly acknowledged the test’s weakness and the need to abandon it with all due haste,” reads the Oct. 26 letter.

The state rates schools’ performance on an accountability scale of 1-5, based in part on standardized test results. Level 1 schools are the highest performing schools and Level 5 schools are ones that enter state receivership.

Because the test is being abandoned, the state did not use declining scores in calculating the ratings. But it did consider PARCC participation rates. Schools with less than 95 percent participation were disqualified from Level 1, even if all other factors were exemplary. And schools with less than 90 percent participation were automatically lowered to Level 3 — a category shared with the lowest 20 percent of performing schools.

Further, at some schools, test participation rates were so low that the state did not calculate an accountability rating.

At Swift River School in New Salem, 13 out of 81 students, or 16 percent, took the PARCC exam, resulting in “insufficient data” to calculate a rating. Compare that to Leverett Elementary School, where 82 percent of students took the exam, resulting in an automatic Level 3 rating.

“In essence, the current state system incentivizes a district’s students to opt out in big enough numbers that the district gets no accountability rating (e.g. New Salem) rather than a lowering of its accountability rating (e.g. Leverett),” the letter reads. “Based on the board’s directive, as well as principles of equity and fair play, schools and districts should be given a one-year, one-time reprieve from a lower accountability rating due to low student participation rates on last spring’s PARCC exam.”

In an interview last month, Swift River Principal Kelley Sullivan said the opt-out movement there took hold as a result of the move from PARCC to a next-generation MCAS, which is expected to be launched this spring.

“We felt coming from our school committee down to the teachers and families that we shouldn’t have to put our students through a test that was no longer going to be used,” Sullivan said.

The letter was signed by Rosenberg; Rep. John W. Scibak, D-South Hadley; Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington; Rep. Susannah M. Whipps Lee, R-Athol; Rep. Paul W. Mark, D-Peru; Sen. Eileen M. Donoghue, D-Lowell; Sen. Michael J. Rodrigues, D-Westport; Sen. Sal N. DiDomenico, D-Everett; and Sen. Michael J. Barrett, D-Lexington.

All represent districts in which schools were downgraded due to low test participation rates.

Education department have yet to comment on the letter.

The link between state accountability rating and test participation has been mandated by federal law for 15 years, beginning with the No Child Left Behind Act. In a past statement, Chester stated that the 95 percent participation rate threshold aims to ensure that schools test all students, not just highest performers, and helps paint a complete picture of achievement gaps among students.

The legislators’ letter comes after the Leverett Select Board in October asked the state to reverse its decision to lower the town’s elementary school accountability rating in a letter to Chester, Rosenberg and several other educational leaders.

The board wrote that the “rating reclassification bears no relation to the actual performance and quality of Leverett School education. Rather, it appears to be a retaliatory response to the decision by some of our students and their parents to not participate” in the PARCC test.

Leverett Select Board Chairman Peter d’Errico said the board has not yet received a response from Chester, but he’s grateful to have the attention and support of lawmakers across the state.

“We’re very grateful to the Senate president and the cohort of legislators he pulled together to respond to this,” d’Errico said. “It’s a widespread group. We’re not just talking about a Franklin County thing or a Hampshire County thing.”

Chris Lindahl can be reached at clindahl@gazettenet.com.