The High Cost of Opt-Out at One Rhode Island High School

As a mother of three, Rhode Island Teacher of the Year in 2013, and an aspiring school leader I struggle to understand the push to opt out of annual testing that seems to be taking hold among suburban and mostly white parents.

It is uniquely disappointing and perplexing to read a letter from my former boss and learn that the school where I used to teach, a school for which I still feel so much pride and love, a school where half of the students come from low-income families, has earned the highly coveted Commended Status in every metric except for one—its opt-out rate.  

Michael Skeldon, head of Beacon Charter High School for the Arts in Woonsocket, did his best to avert the risk posed by families considering opting out of the first round of PARCC testing. Because the school is small, he knew that just six students refusing to test would put their participation rate below 95 percent and make it impossible for them to hold onto its status as a commended high school for the fourth year in a row.

Unfortunately, his fears about opt out came true and despite an overall score that was higher than 10 of the 17 commended schools, Beacon’s opt-out rate caused the Rhode Island Department of Education to revoke its commended status. Just a few families have made it so that not a single graduating senior can say on their college applications this year that they’ve graduated from a Commended School.

And so Skeldon wrote a heartfelt letter to parents, urging them to think of the big picture. Here is an excerpt of his plea:

This week, the Rhode Island Department of Education released the list of Commended Schools for 2015. For the first time in three years, Beacon is not among these highest ranked schools. What happened?

The short answer: “Opting Out.”

When students in grades 9 and 10 sat for the PARCC tests for the first time, several Beacon families chose not to have their children participate in the testing. Our final participation rate was below the 95% threshold … and our Commended status was revoked.

Meeting this participation rate would have made us one of only two commended high schools and we would have been ranked higher than the other school, meaning we could have claimed to be the top-ranked high school in the state based on these criteria.

Was the PARCC test perfect? Absolutely not. They have spent the past year making it (thankfully) shorter and less burdensome for students.

Does it measure everything I need to know about my child’s education? Nope. … It is one data point. Beacon will never measure your child by one number.

How did we do on PARCC? In short, we hit the ground running. Our school outperformed the state and the nation on 3 of 4 PARCC tests. All signs point to even greater success moving forward.

I would like to say, “Congratulations! Your child attends the highest ranked high school in Rhode Island,” but I can’t say that today. A year from now I would like to be able to make that claim. Please do your part to make this happen.”

With test season approaching, I implore parents and students to not take the easy path and blow off a test they either don’t find important or disagree with. I know testing is stressful, but it is something high schoolers will have to cope with as they prepare themselves for much higher-stakes exams in their future. Please give some thought to your school and the big picture.

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Jessica Waters

Jessica Waters

Jessica Waters is the director of next generation learning partnerships at Rhode Island Mayoral Academies. She previously worked at the Rhode Island Department of Education as an educator quality specialist and taught at Beacon Charter High School for the Arts. A high school science teacher for six years, Jessica was awarded the Peter McWalters Professional Educator Award in 2012 and is the 2013 Rhode Island State Teacher of the Year. She serves on various state committees including Educators in Action, Distinguished Educators, 2014 Rhode Island Charter School Application Advisory Committee, Standards-Based Grading Working Group, Next Generation Science Standards Curriculum Writing Team, and RI Educator Autonomy Workgroup. She also serves as a board member at Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy. Waters holds a degree in secondary education (biology and chemistry) from Rhode Island College and an MA in educational leadership.
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