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More Than Half Of State's 11th Graders Skipped Required Standardized Tests


More than half of all high school juniors did not take Washington's benchmark standardized tests this spring, according to preliminary data state officials released Thursday.

In fact, so many eleventh graders skipped the Smarter Balanced exams — more than 42,000 in total — that the state’s overall participation rate on the required tests dipped below a minimum level required by federal law.

That could trigger interventions or harsh penalties from the feds, at least in theory — no state has lost federal education funding for failing to ensure the required 95 percent of its student population takes the tests.

The low participation rates may simply reflect a quirk in the state’s shifting graduation requirements. Though the No Child Left Behind law requires all Washington state eleventh graders to take the Smarter Balanced exams, this year’s juniors don’t need to pass the exam to graduate.

“There was really no incentive to take the assessment," said deputy state superintendent Gil Mendoza. "An eleventh grader would say, ‘why am I taking this test?’”

Test Refusals, By The Numbers

Still, whether it can be chalked up to low stakes or to resentments with standardized testing bubbling to the surface — as many anti-testing advocates say — the numbers are remarkable. (To see how many eleventh graders refused in your district, check out the maps below showing numbers for both the math and English tests.) 

  • Even though only relative handfuls of students in all other tested grades refused to take the tests, the low numbers in eleventh grade alone were enough to drag the state’s overall participation rate down to around 90 percent in both math and English.
  • Nine out of every 10 juniors in the Bainbridge Island School District refused to take the Smarter Balanced exams — the highest refusal rate in the state. In Issaquah, 82 percent skipped the exams. On the other extreme, nearly every student in Bellevue did take the tests. 
  • In more than 80 school districts statewide, at least 10 percent of juniors refused to take the exam, the preliminary numbers showed.
  • Though the state didn’t make school-level numbers available Thursday, just under half of the eleventh graders in Seattle Public Schools did not take the exams. That’s in line with what KPLU reported last spring: most juniors at Nathan Hale, Garfield, Ingraham and Roosevelt high schools did not sit for the exams.

For the eleventh grade class in particular, the most immediate impact of the high refusal rates will be lower test scores for schools statewide — students who don't take the exams are counted as zeroes in the final results.
"I don't think that really shows what our eleventh grade students are capable of," Mendoza said.

Will The Feds Step In?

The 95 percent participation threshold is foundational piece of the No Child Left Behind law. By falling short of that mark, Mendoza said Washington state runs the risk of seeing U.S. Department of Education officials withhold some of the roughly $1 billion in federal school funding the state receives annually.

Critics of standardized testing have said that's an empty threat. They say no school district has ever lost funding over a high testing refusal rate and no state has ever faced sanction for allowing parents to opt their children out of state tests.

"We'll see," said Mendoza. "We don't state it as a threat ... we state it as a matter of fact, and a matter of federal law. We have an obligation to inform our districts."

State officials have informed the U.S. Department of Education about the preliminary numbers, but it could be months before the feds determine whether to take action, Mendoza said.

Mounting Pressure

Facing small but growing opt out movements in several states, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in April his office is obligated to intervene in states where participation rates dip below 95 percent.

In May, federal officials warned Oregon lawmakers that legislation beefing up parents' opt-out rights was a bad idea.

According to The Oregonian newspaper in Portland, a U.S. Department of Education official sent an email warning passing the bill would increase "the likelihood that Oregon will not meet its obligations under the law and incur enforcement action."

Even if the feds don't withhold funding, Mendoza said it's possible they could hand down other sanctions. Federal officials had granted a reprieve to struggling schools from tougher sanctions under the No Child Left Behind law as the state transitioned to the Smarter Balanced exams this year — that, too, could be in jeopardy because of the low participation rate, Mendoza said.

Mendoza added state officials are still going through the somewhat-academic exercise of determining how many of the eleventh graders who didn't take the exams formally refused versus how many simply didn't show up on test day. Though half of the state's eleventh graders didn't sit for the exam, state officials have only confirmed that one-quarter of eleventh graders were refusing to test.

How Many 11th Graders Refused To Take The English SBAC Exams:

How Many 11th Graders Refused To Take The Math SBAC Exams:

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