Just how big is opt out in Delaware?

Delaware’s parent opt out movement may be young, but it has already generated media buzz and legislative bickering.

Just last week, advocacy groups, lawmakers, and citizens lined up to debate House Bill 50, a measure attempting to clarify that parents have the right to opt their children out of the new, Smarter Balanced assessment. Testimony lasted hours, and that was just to determine whether the bill should be released from committee. It was, by an 8-6 vote.

But has the stormy mood in Dover spurred real-world action?

NewsWorks/WHYY asked each of Delaware’s 19 school districts for two pieces of information:

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1.) The number of students who have been formally opted out of the Smarter Balance assessment.

2.) The number of test-eligible students in the district.

So far, 17 of the 19 districts have responded.

Appoquinimink 76 5488 1.4
Brandywine 32 5790 0.6
Caesar Rodney 16 4245 0.4
Cape Henlopen 2 3972 0.1
Capital 34 3340 1.0
Christina 197 8800 2.2
Colonial 85 5433 1.6
Indian River 18 6095 0.3
Lake Forest 5 2150 0.2
Laurel 0 1112 0
Milford 12 2254 0.5
NCC VoTech 2 1094 0.2
Polytech 1 300 0.3
Red Clay 165 9000 1.8
Seaford 4* 1868 0.2
Sussex Tech 0 390 0
Woodbridge 5 1324 0.4
TOTAL 654 62655 1.0

Note:  These are self-reported figures and do not include the state’s charter schools. They are accurate as of late April. NewsWorks/WHYY will ask for the same information again at the end of May.

*Seaford said four students have refused the assessment, but none have formally taken it yet. Therefore, the district does not consider them fully opted out.

What do the numbers mean?

How you interpret this information likely depends on your opinion of opt out.

Governor Jack Markell called parents opting their children out of state testing a “small but vocal minority” during a March press conference. That would seem a fair assessment. Christina’s opt-out rate was the highest among reporting districts, and it was just north of two percent. Most districts reported only a handful of opt outs.

Compare that to the explosive and lengthy debate over House Bill 50, and there does appear a disconnect between the number of parents opting out and the size of the opt out spotlight.

That said, Delaware’s opt out movement is relatively young.

The formal opt out movement in New York, for example, has been gathering strength since the state adopted a new, tougher assessment in 2013. Opt out advocates in the Empire State say nearly 200,000 students have refused to take this year’s English language arts exam.

Delaware’s opt out movement, by comparison, only dates back less than a year. The roots of an organized, opt out push emerged in late 2014. Since then, hundreds of parents have taken up the cause. Though total numbers remain low, growth has been swift.

In past years, for example, Dover’s Capital School District has received about one opt-out request per school, according to LaWanda Burgoyne, the assessment and school improvement specialist. This year, 34 students have opted out, and the number could have been higher. Burgoyne says the district has convinced about a third of the parents who considered opting out to ultimately let their children take the Smarter Balanced exam.

Disruption or nuisance?

State officials warn that if test participation rates dip below 95 percent, the federal government could withhold Title I funding. Opt out proponents say the U.S. Department of Education is bluffing, and that higher-ups merely wants to quell dissent.

Sussing out the legal prerogatives and political will of the federal government requires a far deeper exploration than can be provided here. It should be noted, however, that in Delaware, participation rates have often hovered perilously close to the 95 percent line–even before opt out became a player

At the high school level, in particular, chronic truancy can deflate overall participation rates. Only 95.5 percent of 10th graders participated in last year’s DCAS mathematics assessment, according to state figures. Sprinkle in even a moderate number of opt outs, and that number could fall below 95 percent.

Burgoyne of the Capital School district says officials there are keeping a close eye on participation rates at Dover High School.

“I will be very honest, we have had more opt outs from the high school than from any other school,” Burgoyne said. She added, “They’re very aware politically and they’re at the age where they can advocate for themselves.”

A note on the numbers

None of these numbers are official. They are meant only as a snapshot. Delaware’s testing window for Smarter Balanced runs until June 4. The state will then tabulate participation rates and release them in the summer.

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