When Brad Werntz’s daughter Emma was in fourth grade about a decade ago, she took about two standardized tests during the school year.
Now, his younger son John-Pio and daughter Misa are enrolled in fourth and fifth grade, and Werntz describes their school years as a “completely different experience.”
“In roughly the 10 years since our eldest was in these same grades, we’ve seen a radical change,” Werntz said. “It seems like they’re getting tested at least once a month.”
This school year, the state mandates 12 tests for students across various grade levels. In addition, the Madison School District administers one test multiple times a year to measure growth. Ten years ago, there were many fewer state-mandated tests, according to the Department of Public Instruction.
Werntz’s children are two of about 90 students at Randall Elementary School on Madison’s Near West Side who are not taking the state’s new standardized test known as the Smarter Balanced exam, which Madison students started taking this week. Nearly 25 percent of Randall’s students are not taking the test of math and English skills.
Overall, 4.6 percent — or 519 students — in Madison schools have opted out of taking the test, dubbed the Badger Exam for Wisconsin students. That’s up from 87 students during the 2013-14 school year, when state students took the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Exam. Just five years ago, 17 students opted out of the WKCE. In Madison, a total of 589 students are opting out of the Badger Exam, WKCE or other state exams.
The surge in recent years represents a movement of parents opposing testing in growing numbers. Opposition to the number of tests given, how scores are used by lawmakers in determining school accountability, and using scores to evaluate teachers contributes to the growing numbers nationwide.
“There is increasing attention devoted to ‘Are we testing too much?’ ” said Brad Carl, associate director and researcher at the Value-Added Research Center at UW-Madison. Carl said the increased scrutiny can be traced to the tests themselves being unpopular, and that the tests are tied to new Common Core academic standards that are unpopular among some parents.
“There is likely to be more opt-outs and how (to) handle this is what states are struggling with right now,” he said.
Some states have adopted laws that count students who opt out as not being proficient in any subject area, providing an incentive for schools to discourage parents from opting out, Carl said. Wisconsin students who opt out are counted as having scored a ‘zero’ on the test for accountability purposes, according to the DPI.
About three-fourths of the students in Germantown School District have opted out, superintendent Jeff Holmes said. The abnormally high rate is largely a result of Holmes’ advocacy, he said, because the time spent taking the Badger Exam didn’t seem to be a good use of students’ time.
“I’ve had several phone calls from other districts wanting information about how we went about doing this and what kind of results we’re seeing,” he said. “It’s been exciting.”
The opt-out surge in Madison comes after glitches have delayed the administration of the Badger Exam and caused it to not work as intended, as well as legislation that stops the state from issuing report cards to schools or evaluating teachers based on this year’s test scores. Gov. Scott Walker also has proposed to get rid of the exam altogether in his 2015-17 spending plan.
Werntz said he has his children opt out of some tests, but not all. However, the Badger Exam “seemed like such a waste” because of the uncertainty, he said. More importantly, however, he said he wants his children’s days at school spent learning and “not memorizing what might be on the tests.”
“I want (tests) to be part of their year, not their daily existence,” he said.
Cindy Schlichte, a mother of two girls in first and fifth grades at Randall, led an effort to persuade parents to opt out of the test with Lora Schmid-Dolan, who has two children in Madison schools, and Mary Thompson-Shriver, a parent of two students at Lowell Elementary. Schmid-Dolan is a teacher in Columbus, while Thompson-Shriver is an academic adviser at the School of Education at UW-Madison. The group has hosted informational meetings about opting out and provided parents with letters to send to schools.
Schlichte said she doesn’t agree with using test scores as a basis for measuring schools and teachers, and providing punitive measures for those that don’t measure up.
“This is where the high-stakes (testing) really troubles me because it’s out of (the district’s) hands. They are mandated to give these high-stakes tests but they don’t get to make the decisions about the result,” Schlichte said, adding that if districts or teachers are unable to push back “then we’ll try to bring attention to it.”
But using test score data to highlight strengths or deficiencies in schools and districts is one reason former teacher David Gunderson, whose daughter attends Randall, said he is not opting out his daughter from spring testing.
“We also welcome our daughter encountering potentially stressful situations in as safe an environment as possible,” he said. “Taking tests — and in certain areas of our lives being judged against a standard — is a part of adulthood for many people. We want her as prepared as possible — and not poised to crumble — when she does encounter high-stakes tests in her future.”
He said test scores allow parents to know how well students and schools are doing.
“Knowing our results gives public school supporters the tools to trumpet our successes and proactively address any deficits,” Gunderson said.
The Badger Exam, though possibly going away after this year, will provide districts the first assessment of how well students are learning based on the Common Core State Standards — a set of academic standards that Madison School District superintendent Jennifer Cheatham strongly supports.
“We’ve invested in a lot of time and energy, that I think is well worth it, to align our instruction to the Common Core State Standards, so of course we want to see how our students perform on this new assessment and how they perform in comparison to other districts,” she said.
Cheatham said the district has in the past two years reviewed the number of tests students are given to eliminate duplication between the state and district assessments in an effort to reduce what some parents describe as “overtesting.” She said a handful of tests were eliminated or made optional.
“Their concerns are valid,” Cheatham said. “I think the transition school districts and states have been going through across the nation from a mostly internal accountability assessment system to an increasingly state-driven assessment accountability system has created this period of overlap.”
High numbers of students opting out could have unintended effects on public accountability and the quality of information about children’s abilities, Cheatham said. She suggested the movement against testing is “not as much about testing as it is about frustration with the way these measures are used for accountability purposes, used to punish schools, used to place blame on teachers and educators, and I think we’re all fed up with that.”
But Sharon Besser, mother of a third- and fifth-grader at Randall, said she’s “looking at this as an act of civil disobedience to challenge (state accountability measures), and the ultimate goal is to get back local control of our schools. I think parents are really helpless but this is the only thing we can do right now.”
Andrew Statz, the Madison district’s executive director of research, accountability and data use, said while there’s not an official point at which the opt-out rate negatively affects the quality of the data gathered, if the rate reaches beyond 25 percent, “you get into grain of salt territory.” Schools also can be penalized on the state’s report card for having a test participation rate of lower than 95 percent.
Carl said school districts’ report cards are contingent on having a sufficient number of students’ data. Opt-out rates like Germantown’s “will render moot the ability to do calculations” to show how well a school district closes gaps in abilities among groups of students, for example.