Quietly, behind the scenes for most people, states have been falling one by one to the federal control of education baked into Sen. Lamar Alexander’s Every Student Succeeds Act. Secretary Devos has been denying approval of the unconstitutional state education plans required by ESSA based, among a short list of reasons, on the lack of enforced compliance with the 95% testing requirement for all students. That means no parental refusal to test their children.

The most recent casualty was Utah which had requested a waiver for the 95% test rate to comply with recently passed state statute which says students can be opted out of statewide testing by their parents and, the school and its employees are to suffer no ill effects as a result of a parent exercising those parental rights. Secretary Devos, carrying out the instructions of the publicly unknown members of the plan review committee, denied this waiver request.

Utah joined other states like Colorado, a sort of ground zero for the opt out movement, who have had their state plans rejected. Colorado had their state plan rejected twice by the Secretary. Their state board of education eventually wrote into their plan that they would create two separate lists. The first list, sent to the USDE, counts all opted out students as non-proficient.  That got their plan approved. The state’s list, on the other hand, will count those students as non-participating and their rating will not affect their grades. In addition, participation rates of less than 95% will not have a negative affect on a school’s rating. You can read more about their bizarre system that will now exist in Colorado in Chalkbeat.

The stated goal in ESSA for these state plans is to identify schools that need additional support and to get additional resources (i.e. money) to those schools. Supporters claim that we need to test every student to determine where those additional resources are needed. A different rationale from groups who back the 95% participation rate is that parents want information which actually tells them how their school and district is performing. If they were really honest they would acknowledge that most parents don’t care how the district or even school as a whole is doing. They just want to know how their own child is doing. Those who buy into the idea that a standardized test is going to give them an accurate answer to that question don’t opt their children out of the tests. The high opt-out rate in Colorado, 84% in one district, shows that many parents don’t buy the line that the standardized tests tell them anything useful.

Though President Trump said in his inaugural address,

“Today’s ceremony, however, has very special meaning. Because today we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another, or from one party to another — but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the American People,”

his cabinet is not honoring that promise in education. Though 19 U.S. House members signed a letter to then Secretary John King on April 4, 2016  clearly stating that parent’s rights to direct the education of their children are to be honored and they should be given the option to refuse the statewide assessments, they are obviously in the minority.  It defies reason to think that Devos is acting in opposition to the will of Congress in denying these waivers.

There is no data to support the need to test every student. A statistical sample is all they would need to measure the effectiveness of a district’s curriculum. An audit trail of parental opt out requests is all they would need to assure that districts are not manipulating the assessment system to cover deficiencies. In fact, there is a perverse incentive to test the worst students to justify the need for additional federal funds in a district. No, they want every child tested because they want a record of every child going through the public school system.

The federal government has no authority to declare a district failing. In fact, they have no authority to direct district policy on a host of education policies, yet they use the federal grant system to do just that. Most of their policies stink and have been demonstrable failures; from early childhood education (decades of data showing it is ineffective), to mandatory assessment (which does nothing to improve education while reducing instruction time and driving up costs), to discipline policies (which are leading to unsafe schools like in Broward County.) They only have authority to audit states to make sure that the money they appropriated was spent on what it was appropriated for.

In case you were wondering about our state, Missouri complied with the testing requirements from the very beginning. Page 26 of our state plan included this promise:

“Participation on state assessments will remain a primary component of MO-DESE’s accountability system. All LEAs, schools and subgroups will be required to assess at least 95 percent of their students on assessments required by the MAP.”

You can read the Missouri Coalition Against Common Core’s comments to DESE on the state plan here.

The President cannot be the only person actually fighting to return local control. He must have the support of Congress. As mid-term campaign season goes into full swing, it would be good to ask your federal candidates where they stand on parental rights and if they would sponsor or support a repeal of any or all of ESSA in order to return local control of education. And how about state Attorneys General filing a lawsuit against the unconstitutional ESSA requirements for federal approval of state plans? It is not the federal government’s right to approve how a state intends to manage its education programs, and certainly not for the <10% of “supplemental” funding they supply through Title grants.

Instead of trying more of the same, perhaps it is time to try something different.

Anne Gassel

Anne has been writing on MEW since 2012 and has been a citizen lobbyist on Common Core since 2013. Some day she would like to see a national Hippocratic oath for educators “I will remember that there is an art to teaching as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy and understanding are sometimes more important than policy or what the data say. My first priority is to do no harm to the children entrusted to my temporary care.”

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