By Abby Spegman

The Bulletin

School officials are preparing for a new law that will allow parents to opt their children out of taking state tests — a prospect that has some of those same officials worried.

Districts have until early January to distribute to parents information on House Bill 2655, which goes into effect Jan. 1. It applies to Smarter Balanced tests and the alternative assessment given to students with cognitive disabilities.

This spring was the first time all Oregon students took Smarter Balanced, which aligns with the Common Core standards the state adopted in 2010. It is considered more rigorous than the state’s previous assessment and opponents argue it eats up too much classroom time.

The test is not timed but is estimated to take seven to nine hours, depending on grade.

Some districts this year saw large numbers of students refusing to take the tests, including Eugene, Portland and Lake Oswego. Nationally, more than 500,000 students opted out of state tests in 2015, according to the National Center for Fair & Open Testing.

The new law requires schools notify parents at least 30 days prior to testing and provide supervised study time for students who opt out.

With testing around the state set to begin in February, the Oregon Department of Education has published a notice and form for districts to send home. Near where a parent would sign to opt a student out is the line: “I understand that by signing this form I may lose valuable information about how well my child is progressing in English Language Arts and Math. In addition, opting out may impact my school and district’s efforts to equitably distribute resources and support student learning.”

Currently, opting out in Oregon is allowed for religious or medical reasons. The prospect of more opt-outs under the new law has education officials worried, since they argue high participation rates paint a more accurate picture of student performance at a particular school or district.

The state has also warned schools risk losing $344 million in federal funds if participation drops too low, though it is unclear how likely that is. The federal government requires schools test at least 95 percent of students, both overall and among certain demographics.

This year Oregon had 95 percent participation but missed the mark among students with disabilities and African-American students.

While most Central Oregon schools met the 95 percent threshold, there were pockets of opt-outs in the region. Among La Pine High School 11th-graders, 37 percent did not take the math test and 35 percent did not take the English language arts test. At Redmond Proficiency Academy, a charter school with middle- and high-schoolers, 100 percent of seventh-graders took the English language arts test while just 82 percent of 11th-graders did.

A recent survey of more than 1,200 educators by the Oregon Education Association, the state teachers union, found 95 percent of respondents thought Smarter Balanced significantly disrupted the student learning process. The OEA backed HB 2655.

“Testing consumed our third- to fifth-grade instruction from spring break through the middle of May. It disrupted our math schedule and as soon as it was over, our students had to start taking district assessments,” one educator told OEA.

— Reporter: 541-617-7837, aspegman@bendbulletin.com

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