Students in handful of California schools opt out of Common Core tests

By Sarah Tully, EdSourceParent David Whitley and Linda Cone, a retired teacher, protest outside of Yorba Linda High School in Yorba Linda on May 6, 2015. By Sarah Tully, EdSourceParent David Whitley and Linda Cone, a retired teacher, protest outside of Yorba Linda High School in Yorba Linda on May 6, 2015. Junior Hayley Krolik of Palo Alto was simply too busy and stressed out to take the Smarter Balanced Assessments.
The 17-year-old student at one of the nation’s highest-ranked schools had two Advanced Placement tests coming up. She was taking the SATs on Saturday. Plus, she was losing out on study time because of a youth group retreat the previous weekend.
So, when Hayley found out she could legally and easily skip state testing, she asked her parents to sign her out – as about half of her 11th-grade classmates also did at Gunn High School.
Few California schools have reported high opt-out rates on the Smarter Balanced Assessments, new tests based on nationally developed Common Core State Standards that students are taking for the first time this spring.
But four schools in the state identified by EdSource Today with at least half of their students opting out have similarities: They are all high-achieving high schools in affluent areas. Many of the juniors, the only high school grade required to take the assessments, told school officials that they preferred to spend time studying for AP tests, SATs or other school-related activities because the Smarter Balanced tests don’t directly affect their lives. The high schools are Gunn, Palo Alto, Palos Verdes and Calabasas.
One other high school, where more than one-third of students are low-income, also had about 40 percent of juniors opt out: Westmoor High School in Daly City, where 178 students skipped testing after students found out it was an option, according to Superintendent Thomas Minshew of Jefferson Union High School District.
Largely, the decisions to opt out had nothing to do with negative opinions about the Common Core standards themselves.
“I thought it was the easiest thing to do because I had so much coming up,” Hayley said. “I didn’t see how spending my time taking these tests would be really beneficial.”
In other parts of the country the reasons for opting out have usually been far different, including general opposition to the Common Core standards and how scores on tests aligned with them are being used. In New York, teachers unions have urged parents to exempt their children from the tests, and nearly 200,000 children have been able to avoid taking them.
Rules on opting out of student testing vary by state, with some – like California – easily allowing parents to sign out their kids and others forbidding it.
“It is not civil disobedience in California because it’s legally authorized,” said Bob Schaeffer, a spokesman for the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, or FairTest. “So it’s not been seen as an organizing tool in the same way (as in some other states).”
California high schools
In California, four of the high schools with high opt-out rates are in wealthy areas with highly educated residents.
Gunn High School, Palo Alto
Advanced Placement participation: 75 percent
U.S. News & World Report ranking: 26th in state, 157th in country
Students on free and reduced-price lunch: 7 percent
Palo Alto High School, Palo Alto
Advanced Placement participation: 68 percent
U.S. News & World Report ranking: 41st in state, 228th in country
Students on free and reduced-price lunch: 8 percent
Palos Verdes High School, Palos Verdes
Advanced Placement participation: 64 percent
U.S. News & World Report ranking: 77th in state, 391st in country
Students on free and reduced-price lunch: 1.4 percent
Calabasas High School, Calabasas
Advanced Placement participation: 44 percent
U.S. News & World Report ranking: 225th in state, 1,116th in country
Students on free and reduced-price lunch: 7 percent
Westmoor High School, Daly City
Advanced Placement participation: 35 percent
U.S. News & World Report ranking: 352nd in state, 1,651th in country
Students on free and reduced-price lunch: 37 percent
Sources: U.S. News & World Report, California Department of Education
The two Palo Alto schools are in Silicon Valley near Stanford University. Calabasas, north of Los Angeles, is where the Kardashians call home and singer Justin Bieber once lived. Palos Verdes, a peninsula community in Los Angeles County, boasts ocean-view homes that average $1.5 million. Three of the schools ranked gold, or top 3 percent, on the U.S. News and World Report list of best high schools.
In Calabasas and Palos Verdes, the seed of the opt-out idea started with Common Core opponents who spread the word about parent exemptions. But it caught on among 11th-graders who wanted to skip for personal reasons, school officials said.
At Gunn High School, one 11th-grader posted an article on a class Facebook page. Others started asking about the possibility of skipping the tests and many decided to convince their parents to sign off, Hayley said. Parents also shared information on their own junior-class email list.
At Calabasas High, about 70 percent of the junior class initially skipped testing largely because it was scheduled close to AP and other tests. But most students are now planning on taking the makeup test at the end of May, said Mary Schillinger, assistant superintendent of Las Virgenes Unified School District. As of last week, 184 students had signed up for the makeup test, which will bring up the participation rate to between 70 and 75 percent.
Some Westmoor students reported that they wanted to study for AP tests. But the Smarter Balanced Assessments came a few weeks before the AP tests were scheduled, leading Daly City’s Minshew to believe students just wanted to skip the tests.
Common Core protests
While only a few schools in California are known to have high opt-out rates, pockets of Common Core opponents scattered throughout the state are trying to boost those numbers by holding protests and handing out forms outside of schools.
In Orange County, for example, a loose-knit group of about 30 retirees and parents of public, private and home-schooled children is making the rounds outside of campuses with buckets of opt-out forms and signs. On a recent Wednesday morning, protesters leaned into cars to give documents to parents pulling up to Yorba Linda High School, about three miles from the Richard Nixon Library and Museum.
“That is the most effective way of fighting Common Core – not having kids take the test,” said Linda Cone, a retired teacher who wore a sandwich-board sign stating, “Forms Here Opt Out.”
It’s unclear how many parents end up turning in those opt-out forms. Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District has yet to gather opt-out numbers. In nearby Newport-Mesa Unified School District, where some of the protesters live, 30 parents had turned in opt-out forms as of last week.
Another reason why it is hard to figure out how many parents in California have opted out of the new tests, officially known as the California Assessment of Student Progress and Performance, is that the California Department of Education hasn’t collected parent exemption numbers from districts, which will submit them after testing is completed.
Student exemptions
At the five high schools, the students often convinced their parents to sign the forms, instead of the parents taking the initiative.
Law on parental exemptions can be found under Title 5 of California Code of Regulations
California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress
California opposition to Common Core relatively minimal
U.S. News & World Report Best High Schools
Half of juniors opt out of Common Core tests at affluent high school
In Palo Alto, Lori Krolik, Hayley’s mother, said she trusted her daughter’s judgment that she could better spend her time staying home to study for AP and SAT tests. But Krolik made sure her daughter had a plan on how she would spend the time.
“I wasn’t trying to send the message about the Common Core,” Krolik said.
Susan Hooker, the parent of a Calabasas 11th-grader, said her son opted out because his friends were also skipping the test. Hooker said in an email that she has no “philosophical objections” to the test and her son will take the makeup.
It’s unclear what, if any, consequences there will be to opting out from the test.
Schillinger said Calabasas High could lose some state funds because the campus receives funding based on Average Daily Attendance and students who didn’t take the test skipped school those days. Students who opted out in the two Palo Alto schools also stayed out on those days, but school officials don’t believe they will lose funds as a result. Some students at Palos Verdes High, who skipped the test, attended school on those days.
The federal government, under the No Child Left Behind law, requires that 95 percent of students take state tests. If they fall below that number, the schools are labeled as failing to make “Adequate Yearly Progress,” with the possibility of a range of progressively harsh sanctions kicking in as a result.
But sanctions are unlikely, as they only apply to schools that receive federal funds for low-income students, called Title 1 funds.
More affluent schools, like four of those with high opt-out rates, don’t receive Title 1 funds. However, Westmoor High, which has about 37 percent low-income students, could be at risk of losing some Title 1 funds.
Superintendent Minshew said he is worried about possibly losing funds, but there is nothing he can do about it because parents have the right to opt out their children.
The schools might be excluded from future rankings on the U.S. News & World Report list of best high schools, which uses state test scores. If those scores or similar results are unavailable, the schools would be ineligible under the current methodology, said Sophia Sherry, a spokeswoman for U.S. News & World Report.
Gunn High School ranked 26th in the state and 157th in the nation on the list released last week. “I am concerned about the lack of data we will have about our students’ ability to show proficiency of the Common Core State Standards,” said Principal Denise Herrmann in an email in response to a question about the U.S. News & World Report rankings.
Not all parents sympathized with students opting out of the tests at their schools. Laura Ainsworth, co-president of the Parent Faculty Club at Calabasas High, whose daughter is a senior there, said she worries how the high number of opt-outs will affect funding and the school’s reputation. Some teachers ended up with two students in class to take the tests. Other students said they wanted to sleep in, while others decided to study for AP tests, Ainsworth said.
“You might not like it, but it’s a part of life.… You just have to juggle and be mature about it, especially if you are a junior in high school,” Ainsworth said. “You can’t opt out when you get out of school and into the workplace. Real life is coming pretty fast.”
Clarification: A previous version of this story included the incorrect month of testing at Westmoor High School. This story was updated to include the correct timing of the Smarter Balanced Assessments.
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