In a sign that the opt-out movement continues to grow, the number of elementary school students who refused to take Pennsylvania’s state standardized tests rose dramatically over the past two years.
Between 2013-14 and 2014-15, opt-outs on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment math test more than tripled – from 1,017 students to 3,270. That’s a 220 percent jump.
In the same years, PSSA English language arts opt-outs jumped 139 percent – from 1,355 to 3,245.
Opt-outs on the science test jumped 263 percent – from 309 to 1,123.
These are the largest jumps in nine years of available data.
These numbers, though, actually account only for parents who formally opted out. The state also counts students whose parents refused to have them take the test without going through the opt-out process.
When both categories are combined, the increases are starker in math and English.
Between 2013-14 and 2014-15, the PSSA math test saw total exclusions jump by 240 percent – from 1,292 to 4,394.
Likewise, the PSSA English language arts test saw total exclusions jump 155 percent – from 1,789 to 4,567.
Total exclusions on the science test jumped 258 percent – from 456 to 1,635.
“It’s a recognition that there’s already substantial concern among some parents about the climate with standardized testing,” said Adam Schott, director of policy research at Research for Action. “And so it’s just important that policymakers be attentive going forward.”
Opt-out numbers for the Keystone exam taken by high schoolers were not yet available.
While the PSSA opt-out jumps are high, total exclusions represent an extremely small fraction of the state’s students.
In most subjects, the percentage of total students refusing the test rose in the past two years rose from 0.001 to 0.005 percent.
The graphs below track the statewide changes.
Source: Pennsylvania Department of Education.
Even a small fraction of the total statewide opt-outs can, hypothetically, make a difference to individual schools on the state’s school performance profile.
In a 2014 report, Research for Action ran an hypothetical example based on a school with an SPP score just above the state’s quality threshold of 70.
With about 100 kids in tested grades, RFA found that if 11 high-performing students opt out, the school would sink below the threshold. Conversely, if 21 low-performing students opt out, the school’s score would rocket into the 80s.
“In a situation like that, it’s pretty easy to see how you could have – particularly high-performing kids – opting out in some number, and then that might push schools that are close to the borderline down,” said RFA’s Lucas Westmaas, co-author of the report.
The Pennsylvania Department of Education said it could not yet release opt-out information about individual schools or districts. Even if it does, it’s impossible to predict how many of the opt-outs would have been high performers.
The release of statewide opt-out numbers comes on the heels of major declines on PSSA tests based on the implementation of more rigorous standards.
When similar drops were seen in New York for similar reasons in 2011, that state’s opt-out movement exploded into the mainstream. This year, about 20 percent of students opted out of state tests.
For more perspective, here’s the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s statewide count from the 2012-13 school year: