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Evie Strigel writes in her journal

Emerson Elementary School fourth-grader Evie Strigel, 9, describes how similes and metaphors helped her understand "The Little Mermaid" in a lesson algined to the Common Core academic standards in this December 2014 file photo. This spring, seven percent of Madison students opted out of taking the Badger Exam, which is aligned to the Common Core.

About 7 percent of elementary and middle school students in Madison and 2 percent of public school students statewide this spring opted out of taking a new test aligned to the Common Core academic standards — up from one-tenth of 1 percent of students who opted out of the state test last year.

More than 700 students in the Madison School District opted out, part of the 8,104 public school students who opted out statewide, a substantial increase from the 87 and 583 students, respectively, who opted out last year, state and school district data show.

While the increase is significant, state education officials note the percentage this year of students opting out is not as high as states like New York, where a vocal movement against standardized testing has taken hold resulting in an estimated opt-out rate at around 14 percent for one of that state’s tests.

Department of Public Instruction spokesman John Johnson said the increase points mostly to a nationwide movement of parents opposing testing in growing numbers. Opponents question the number of tests given, and how scores are used in determining school accountability and evaluating teachers.

“At the same time, I’d say educators, education leaders and parents really talk to each other a lot about the value of assessments,” Johnson said, adding that so far, school report cards that rely on test scores have not been used as the basis for sanctions, which can drive opt-out movements. He also would not speculate about whether the trend will continue.

The Madison School District says 737 students opted out of taking the English and math tests this spring, which represents a surge from recent years. Just five years ago, 17 Madison students opted out of state tests. For other tests given this school year, 1 percent of students opted out of taking them, according to a district report.

The increase comes as lawmakers move to get rid of the Badger Exam, Wisconsin’s version of the Smarter Balanced exam that was developed using questions from a consortium of states aligned to the controversial Common Core academic standards that state Superintendent Tony Evers adopted in 2010.

The rollout of the test in Wisconsin schools this spring included several delays, and technical glitches forced schools to use a scaled-back exam that did not adapt to students’ abilities as intended.

Gov. Scott Walker has proposed in his 2015-17 budget to scrap the test and has signed a bill to prohibit this year’s test scores from being used to measure schools’ progress and teachers’ effectiveness — giving parents another reason to have their children sit out this year’s test.

Madison School District spokeswoman Rachel Strauch-Nelson said officials believe some of the district’s opt-outs “are due to the instability at the state level and the fact that this will be a one-year test.”

“Because there will not be a state report card this year, we are not too concerned about that specifically, but we do need to address concerns about over-testing,” she said, noting the district has reduced the number of tests given to students in recent years.

Lawmakers respond

On Wednesday, a Senate education committee held a hearing on a bill that would clarify the rules on opting out of state-mandated tests.

Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt, R-Fond du Lac, chairman of the Assembly Education Committee and an author of the bill, said the law would also push school officials to “sell” state tests to parents and explain their value. The bill’s language is broad enough to allow parents to opt out of any tests administered by local school districts — language that public school advocates have asked to be removed. Thiesfeldt said it’s not the authors’ intention to allow parents to “opt out of the weekly spelling test,” and that the language could be narrowed.

Currently, state law only allows students to opt out of state-mandated tests. The bill also would prohibit the state from penalizing schools on their state report card scores for low test participation rates.

While the bill would broaden the number of tests students could opt out of taking, Thiesfeldt said he doesn’t believe the state’s test participation rate will drop below the federal requirement of 95 percent — which would trigger federal sanctions like withholding funding for low-income students.

“We probably had the strongest opt-out movement that anyone can remember in Wisconsin,” Thiesfeldt said about this spring’s opt-out numbers. “Even with the strong movement that we had, we were still above the threshold required.”

Jeff Pertl, senior policy adviser at DPI, told committee members on Wednesday that states receive federal funding for schools in exchange for an agreement that the state will test 100 percent of its students. While Wisconsin students generally rank high on ACT scores and graduation rates, Pertl explained, the state also has one of the largest achievement gaps between black and white students in the country.

“And we know that because of assessment,” Pertl said.

Schools can be penalized on the state report cards if their test participation falls below 95 percent among all students or within subgroups of students. In 2008, Pertl said, 80 schools would have been penalized if report cards had been in place, but that number has fallen recently to 18.

Sixty-two percent of the students who opted out of the Madison tests were white, according to a district report, 73 percent were not living in low-income households and 80 percent were not special education students.

According to the district report, nearly half of the parents who chose not to have children tested have advanced college degrees. Students who opted out also score well on tests generally.

Crestwood Elementary saw the highest rate of opt-outs, with 41 percent of the 189 students not taking the test. Randall Elementary had the highest number of opt-outs at 99 students, representing 25 percent of the school’s third-, fourth- and fifth-graders.

The report also said no students in Falk, Hawthorne, Lake View, Mendota, Orchard Ridge and Schenk elementary schools opted out. The June 1 report showed lower numbers of students opting out in four schools than district data supplied to the State Journal in April.

Strauch-Nelson said the April report included students who didn’t take the test for reasons other than opting out, or students not enrolled in the district when the test was given.


Molly Beck covers politics and state government for the Wisconsin State Journal.