Reader View: Leaders must prioritize well-being of families

Howie C. Morales

As New Mexico schools prepare for their second round of PARCC standardized testing, a state senator has asked the Attorney General’s Office for an opinion on whether parents have the legal right to remove their children from the exams.

Sen. Howie Morales, D-Silver City, said Thursday that he is unclear whether “opting out,” as the procedure is called, bears any legal or financial consequences for parents or for the state.

“My concern is that there have been some mixed messages out there, with some districts telling parents they cannot opt out and using fear tactics to persuade them, and other districts offering an opt-out kit and different opportunities,” Morales said. “It’s really inconsistent throughout the state and so I thought I’d go through the Attorney General’s Office to get clarification.”

Opting out is just one action in growing resistance to PARCC, which stands for the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. The computerized exams assess students’ math and reading skills based on Common Core Standards recently adopted by New Mexico and several other states. Student protests and walkouts because of the standardized test have occurred in New Mexico and other states.

But for schools and states not maintaining a 95 percent participation threshold for testing, the stakes could be high.

In December, the U.S. Department of Education sent a letter to all state school officials emphasizing the need for 95 percent participation in testing and warning that failure to reach that goal could result in federal money being withheld from states. That letter urges states to find ways to sanction districts where rates fall below 95 percent.

Proponents of standardized exams have said that failure to maintain federal testing requirements can lead to a loss of federal funding. Opponents say that isn’t so.

“The reality is that no state — including New York, where more than 20 percent of students opted out last year — have ever suffered any penalty from the federal government,” said Robert Schaeffer, public education director of Fair Test: The National Center for Fair and Open Testing. “It is politically unrealistic to expect that the feds would actually punish an entire state because parents choose to reject tests.”

Morales agrees. “I challenge the federal government as well for threatening the withholding funds. Those are taxpayer funds, funds that are there because of parents, and to imply they would jeopardize and hurt students by withholding those funds is something we need to stand strong against,” he said.

Fewer than than 4 percent of New Mexico’s 300,000 students last year decided not to take the test. That kept the state in compliance with the federal testing requirement of 95 percent.

In Santa Fe, fewer than than 3 percent of students — just 220 out of some 8,000 — opted out of the PARCC tests.

But other consequences exist. In New Mexico, if a school’s participation level falls below the 95 percent threshold, it can lose a letter grade in the state rating system. The state Public Education Department grades all schools on an A-F system.

At least five schools in Santa Fe saw their grades drop last year because of the number of students who opted out of standardized testing.

Robert McEntyre, spokesman for the Public Education Department, said Thursday that the department does not track “opt-out” figures at the state level. He said the department’s website includes a page on testing participation that makes the mandate clear.

“Federal and state law is crystal clear: All students without a medical exemption must participate in the annual statewide assessment,” he said in an email.

McEntyre said Morales did not ask the department to seek clarity before contacting the attorney general. Morales said that’s because he had asked the department for guidance over the course of various legislative committee meetings but never received a clear answer.

James Hallinan of the Attorney General’s Office said Morales submitted a request for an opinion and said the office will review it.

In New Mexico, PARCC testing begins in some districts as early as next week. After receiving feedback from teachers, parents and students about challenges related to PARCC, states utilizing the exam, including New Mexico, decided to consolidate the two testing windows into one and reduce total test time by about 90 minutes to simplify the process this year.

Contact Robert Nott at 505-986-3021 or rnott@sfnewmexican.com.

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