Delaware house passes opt out bill

(NewsWorks/FILE)

(NewsWorks/FILE)

The Delaware House of Representatives passed legislation Thursday allowing parents to opt their children out of the new, Smarter Balanced assessment.

Only three lawmakers voted against the measure. If the bill passes the State Senate it will go to Governor Jack Markell, who hinted last week during a radio interview with WDEL that he may veto the measure.

Hundreds of Delaware parents have already refused to let their children take the exam, which is designed to gauge student progress on the Common Core State Standards. Many believe the new, tougher exam is an imposition on instructional time and an untrustworthy measure of student achievement. Statewide, roughly one percent of students scheduled to take the Smarter Balanced exam have opted out, according to informal numbers gathered by NewsWorks/WHYY.

Thursday’s vote comes amid a nationwide swell in anti-testing sentiment. In New York, for example, advocates estimate that nearly 200,000 students have refused to take state assessments. The movement’s leaders say a surge in high-stakes standardized tests has distorted school curricula and created a data-obsessed educational culture that ignores the nuances of classroom learning.

Their opponents believe regular exams provide a critical and impartial accounting of how students, teachers, schools, and districts are doing.

An early victory of a young movement

While Delaware’s opt out movement is relatively modest in terms of total refusals, organizers can already chalk up a major legislative victory. With support from the state’s PTA and its teacher’s union, opt out advocates took what was once a fringe issue and quickly ushered it into the legislative spotlight.

Once there, opt out quickly monopolized the attention of lawmakers.

During a long and contentious meeting of the house education committee last month, groups as diverse as the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce and the Urban League voiced opposition to the bill. Opponents said opting out could reduce accountability for schools and teachers, encourage schools to not test lower-performing students, and incur the wrath of federal overseers.

Only eight of the committee’s 14 members voted to release the bill from committee.

“This is a turning point”

Thursday’s proceedings were comparably tame, providing an anti-climactic end to what had been a rancorous legislative debate. The landslide vote totals, though, indicated growing discontent with the Delaware Department of Education and its education reforms.

“This is a turning point for our state education system,” said Deborah Hudson, R-Hockessin.

“There needs to be a serious conversation about education in this state,” added Daniel Short, R-Seaford.

The bill itself does relatively little, besides affirming that parents have the right to remove their children from Smarter Balanced testing. It also mandates that schools provide alternative instruction for students who opt out and that districts inform parents of their right to opt out.

The bill’s champions, though, hope the energy around the measure will spark conversation about the state’s educational priorities.

“This is an open door to having a dialogue on the education reform movement,” said John Kowalko, D-Newark, the bill’s co-sponsor and most vocal legislative supporter.

Kowalko has been a vocal critic of the Delaware Department of Education and what is more broadly defined as the education reform movement. Some on the left see the movement’s support of charter schools and its focus on teacher evaluation as evidence of corporate influence in public education.

Education reformers have also run into resistance on the right, particular from those who believe the national push for higher standards threatens to erode local control.

The convergence of those two forces has put a squeeze on education reformers nationally, as well as in Delaware, where the current administration is generally seen as an ally of the reform movement.

Officials stand firm

Despite Thursday’s setback, the Delaware Department of Education maintained its opposition to the measure.

“Students and parents deserve the benefits of knowing how they are doing and where they may need extra support to be prepared for college or a career when they graduate,” the department said in a statement.

A spokesperson for Markell said the Governor felt similarly.

Officials say they are concerned, however, about the number of standardized tests students take each year. In March, the department launched a testing inventory intended to identify and eliminate those exams deemed unnecessary.

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