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Students at Fairview High School in Boulder protested state tests in 2014.  (Denver Post file photo)

Students at Fairview High School in Boulder protested state tests in 2014. (Denver Post file photo)

Colorado tells feds it needs more time to rethink opt-out policy

Colorado is asking for more time to figure out how to meet federal requirements for giving students standardized tests while respecting the rights of parents who don’t want their children to take them.

In a letter Thursday, Commissioner Katy Anthes told the federal government that the state needs until October to reconsider how Colorado holds schools and districts accountable when they fail to meet federal requirements for student participation on state tests.

The federal education department earlier this month told state officials that Colorado’s approach of not penalizing schools that fall below the 95 percent participation threshold doesn’t align with the nation’s updated education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The federal pushback came as part of the department’s formal review of states’ education plans that detail how they will comply with the new law. Colorado was one of the first states to submit its plan.

The reviews are being watched for clues of how the federal department under Education Secretary Betsy DeVos interprets a law that was intended to shift more decision-making to states.

Colorado was required to by Thursday either submit new language in its federally required education plan or ask for an extension. Officials chose the latter.

“Because our board has a strong commitment to Colorado’s parental opt-out rights, it will need to carefully consider how best to address your concerns without designing a system that will be perceived by parents and educators as punitive,” Colorado Education Commissioner Katy Anthes said in the letter. “We are optimistic that the various interests here can be addressed in a manner that complies with ESSA and is in the best interest of Colorado students, parents, and educators.”

Colorado’s response follows a trip by one state official to Washington, D.C., to discuss the issue in person.

Alyssa Pearson, Colorado’s associate commissioner for accountability and performance, flew to the Capital Aug. 18 in an effort to better understand what changes the federal department is seeking from Colorado.

Pearson, in an interview with Chalkbeat, said the department made it clear: The first 5 percent of students at a school who do not take the test get a pass. However, any student who skips the tests beyond that line must be counted as non-proficient.

So if 10 percent of kids at a school opt out, the first 5 percent won’t count against a school. The remaining 5 percent must count as non-proficient, dragging down the school’s scores.

Pearson said federal officials will require Colorado to use this number it its school quality ratings. It can’t just be a number it submits to the U.S. education department and then ignores.

Schools and districts with large numbers of students who are labeled as non-proficient on state tests are likely to receive low quality ratings from the states. Schools that receive the lowest quality ratings for five years in a row are targeted for state intervention.

In Colorado, the largest volume of opt-outs involve mostly white and middle- and upper-class students at schools with traditionally high quality ratings.

“While we don’t know how the schools are performing today,” Pearson said, “historically schools with parental refusal rates have performed pretty well in the past.”

Before 2015 when the opt-out movement gained traction, nearly all Colorado schools met the federal testing requirement.

The prescribed changes to how Colorado calculates how many students are meeting proficiency could lead to more schools being identified as low-performing — even if they don’t need help.

“We raised that issue,” Pearson said. She added that federal officials recognized the dilemma and offered suggestions on how the state can separate schools with truly low academic performance and those with artificially deflated scores.

State officials will present a variety of options to the State Board of Education in September, Pearson said.

Those options include asking state lawmakers to rewrite the state’s school accountability system to fully comply with federal law, or running two accountability systems — one that follows state law and the other that follows federal law.

The board must sign off on any policy changes included in the state’s education plan. A decision is expected in October.