Students on computers

Following parent complaints, Madison School District officials say they are working to rectify a situation in which certain students face negative consequences for having opted out of the state’s standardized test.

The problem most immediately affects middle school students who opted out of the Badger Exam last spring and are now taking high school-level courses this year while still in middle school.

Those students — there are about 80 of them, according to the district — recently learned that they are not eligible to earn high school credits for those courses because they skipped the standardized test.

Sigrid Murphy said her son is one of those 80. He opted out of the Badger Exam during the 2014-15 school year and is now taking a high school geometry course this year as an eighth-grader at Hamilton Middle School.

“When we opted out of the test last year — that was the first time we’d ever done that — there was no communication from the district that there would be a consequence,” said Murphy, a math teacher at Madison West High School. “So when we heard a year later there would be consequences, it was surprising.”

In explaining the situation, district officials cite Act 138, a state law that took effect for the 2014-15 school year.

It allows students in grades 7 and 8 to earn credits toward their high school diplomas. However, pupils first must demonstrate that they’re academically prepared for the higher-level coursework. The law gives them two ways to do that, either on the state standardized test or on “a similar examination approved by the school board.”

The current Madison School Board policy on the matter mirrors the state language, saying a student must show preparedness on the most recently administered state-mandated test “or similar examination.” However, the board policy does not specify what other tests qualify.

The policy needs to have that specificity to comply with the state law and resolve the issue, said Cindy Green, the district’s executive director of curriculum and instruction. To that end, she said administrators will ask the board on May 23 to allow scores from the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test or an end-of-the-semester exam in the applicable content area to be used, she said.

“We’re confident that every one of those 80 kids will get credit,” she said.

MAP is a widely used test nationally but not required by the state. The Madison School District administers it multiple times a year in grades 3-8 and considers it the primary tool to consistently track academic growth over time.

Board President James Howard said he supports the administration’s recommendation but could not speak for his colleagues because the board has not discussed it.

Murphy said her son first heard about the negative consequences from a teacher about two weeks ago. Murphy began reaching out to school and district officials and School Board members and initially heard “different messages,” she said.

However, within a few days, she said it appeared the district was moving to fix the situation.

“I feel confident that parents were heard and that the district is doing its best to get it resolved,” she said.

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Brad Werntz, another parent of a Hamilton middle school student, also contacted administrators after learning about the situation. His sixth-grade daughter is opting out of taking the state’s standardized test this spring.

The test is now called the Wisconsin Forward Exam and is the third version of a standardized test in the state in three years. Legislators soured on the Badger Exam after just one year due to delays, technical glitches, cost overruns and other problems.

About 3 percent of public school students in the state did not take the Badger Exam last year, most of them pupils whose parents opted them out of it. Many parents said the uncertainty and upheaval related to testing at the state level was a contributing factor.

They are part of a surge nationwide in recent years of parents opposing testing. Opposition to the number of tests given, how scores are used by lawmakers in determining school accountability, and using scores to evaluate teachers have contributed to the increase.

Werntz said he has many of the same concerns. There should not be a penalty for opting out of a state test, he said.

“It felt punitive, frankly,” he said.

The administration’s recommendation to the School Board “is great news,” he said.

Green said district administrators started hearing from parents about their concerns “earlier this school year.” She did not respond to a request to be more specific.

Asked why parents were not made aware last spring of the potential consequences of opting out, Green said the district’s focus at the time was on communicating with families that the district would not use the Badger Exam to make high-stakes decisions.

“Through this communication, (the opt-out issue) was not made clear,” she said.

Green said the situation “is another example of how the instability at the state level has consequences for school districts that can put us in confusing and always changing situations.”

More than 700 students in the Madison School District opted out of the Badger Exam last year. So far, 386 Madison students have opted out of the Forward Exam, although the count is preliminary and incomplete, said Rachel Strauch-Nelson, district spokeswoman.

The testing window extends through Friday, and schools will continue reporting figures after that, she said.

As the opt-out movement continues, there can be ramifications for districts. Wisconsin schools can be penalized on the state’s report card for having a test participation rate of lower than 95 percent.

No school report cards were issued in 2014-15 due to the fleeting nature of the Badger Exam.

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