Testing Refusals Hit Haines, Put Star Rating And Funding At Risk

An AMP flyer posted at Haines School. (Emily Files)
An AMP flyer posted at Haines School. (Emily Files)

A growing national movement to opt-out of standardized testing has hit the Haines School District hard. In the past six years, only one student has refrained from taking annual tests. But this year, families of 12 students refused the test.

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District administrators say that puts Haines well below the federally-mandated 95 percent participation rate. That could mean more scrutiny and work for the district. It could also put thousands of dollars in grant funding at risk.

“This is catching me completely by surprise,” said Haines Superintendent Ginger Jewell.

School districts around the U.S. are required by federal law to assess student progress with testing each year. In Alaska, students in grades 3-10 are tested in English Language Arts and Math. Grades 4, 8 and 10 are tested in science.

“The reason why we have that in place is because it’s an accountability measure to make sure students are receiving education as defined by the state,” said Elizabeth Davis, administrator for student assessments with the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development (EED).

The AMP (Alaska Measures of Progress) tests are new this year. They replaces SBAs (Standards Based Assessments.) AMP tests are aligned with new state education standards adopted in 2012.

They’re conducted online, instead of with a pencil and paper. Davis says the new education standards are more rigorous and emphasize critical thinking.

Most states around the US have adopted the Common Core State Standards in their curriculum and tests. Alaska is not one of them. The new standards here are called the Alaska English Language Arts and Mathematics Standards. Davis says they include Alaska-specific material.

But some parents and even legislators see a difference between Common Core and Alaska Standards only in name, not in substance. That is a central reason for the increasing number of refusals.

“So there’s a group of people who feel like their students shouldn’t take this test because it’s a Common Core test,” Davis said.  “Which would be an inaccurate statement.”

A group called Alaskans Against the Common Core did not return requests for comment. But one Haines parent did explain his reasons for opting his students out of the AMP test this year. He asked not to be identified to protect his children’s privacy.

He says his main concern about testing also has to do with privacy. He says AMP is aligned with Common Core, and his understanding of Common Core’s purpose is to track students through their schooling and into their career, and then that data is available to be sold to companies that are recruiting.

“Absolutely not. We do not sell student data, period,” said Brian Laurent, the data supervisor for EED.

He says the data from AMP tests resides on the servers of the test vendor, which is the University of Kansas Achievement and Assessment Institute. They’re the ones who ‘crunch the numbers’ and then report them to Alaska’s education department.

“Any transfer of student information from our test vendor in Kansas to staff here in the department is done in a secure, encrypted manner. Student data are not at risk of being released or shared,” Laurent said.

Haines is not the only school district in Alaska dealing with a huge increase in test refusals.

“At this point in time we have a total of 32 parent or student refusals out of 283 testers,” said Robyn Taylor, assistant superintendent and testing coordinator for the Sitka School District.

When Taylor spoke to KHNS on Friday, two out of five schools had finished testing. Both schools fell well below 95 percent participation. In Haines, the district participation rate was about 93 percent.

That’s a problem because No Child Left Behind requires schools to have a 95 percent participation in assessments.

“The lower the participation rate, the less valid the results are in telling us how the school does,” said EED Deputy Commissioner Les Morse.

In normal circumstances, low participation could drop the school’s Alaska School Performance Index rating, which is on a scale of one to five stars. Right now, Haines homeschool, elementary and high school all have four or five-star ratings.

“When your star rating drops to three or below, then you become under heavy, heavy scrutiny by both the state and possibly the federal government for much more paperwork, much more oversight,” said Superintendent Jewell.

But since this is the first year for the AMP test, EED is requesting federal approval to freeze schools’ star ratings. So, at least this year, Haines schools’ star ratings might not change.

However, with a participation rate below the federal requirement, state officials say the district will still have to develop a plan to bring participation next year back up.

There is also a whole range of federal funding that is contingent on student assessments. If a state is out of compliance, the US Department of Education could withhold funding. If school districts fail to comply with testing requirements, the state could withhold funding from them. Davis says the state has not discussed that option.

“Alaska doesn’t withhold funding when schools are making their best effort,” she said.

So schools are stuck in the middle of two things they cannot do very much about: federal requirements on test participation and parents’ freedom of choice to refuse testing.

Districts like Haines and Sitka have tried to put out information to combat worries about AMP testing. Jewell says she’s concerned the ‘genie is out of the bottle,’ and that what she calls ‘misinformation’ will not go away.