Broad opt-out bill passes Delaware Senate

School children in classroom. (via ShutterStock)

School children in classroom. (via ShutterStock)

A bill passed Wednesday in the Delaware Senate would allows parents to opt their children out of any district- or state-wide assessment.

The bill goes further than a Delaware House version, which only certified that parents could opt out of a new, statewide exam known as Smarter Balanced. The Senate bill, unlike its House counterpart, also allows eleventh-graders to refuse to take statewide assessments. In prior versions, parents had to refuse the test on behalf of their children.

The amended legislation passed 14-7 and now heads back to the House with new language in tow.

The vote marked a strange twist in what has fast become one of Dover’s highest-profile legislative showdowns.

The bill itself is fairly benign, simply codifying that parents have the right to with hold a child from assessments. Across the state, many parents have already pulled their children from the Smarter Balanced exam without explicit legislative approval.

Still, the so-called opt-out bill has stirred strong emotions, stoking larger debates over the place of testing in Delaware schools. It’s also become a conduit of sorts for broader dissatisfaction with the current Delaware Department of Education and the education policies of Governor Jack Markell.

“This bill is an expression of frustration,” said State Senator Bryan Townsend, D-Newark.

In particular, Townsend said, some parents, teachers, and legislators believe the Department of Education force feeds big changes without taking the time to consult others. And testing–or over-testing, as some frame it–has become a popular pet cause for those who have otherwise clashed with the administration over education.

Testing proponents say the state needs standardized exams to measure student growth and determine how best to spend educational dollars. Testing skeptics say preparation for big exams cuts into instructional time and distorts school curricula.

Many have a particular distaste for Smarter Balanced, a new, tougher test that is supposed to measure student mastery of the Common Core State Standards. It’s also expected to drive test scores down as students adjust.

Smarter Balanced was administered for the first time this year in grades three through eight and again in grade 11.

State leaders have repeatedly acknowledged an overabundance of testing in Delaware schools. In March, Governor Jack Markell launched a testing inventory meant to account for every school-district, and state-wide exam. His administration hopes to eliminate redundant or unnecessary exams.

Markell does not, however, support the opt out bill. He’s joined in that position by business leaders and various civil rights groups. Minority leaders worry opt-out provisions will be used to dissuade underprivileged from taking standardized tests.

That fear surfaced again during the Senate floor debate. “I’m worried we’re going to stop tracking the kids we need to track,” said State Senator Colin Bonini, R-Dover, who ultimately supported the bill.

The opt out bill prompted fierce debate in both the Senate and House education committees. It passed the House easily, 36-3, but will now have to be heard by that body again.

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