As it became clearer that TNReady simply wasn’t, more school districts saw parents attempting to opt their children out of the state-mandated tests. In the face of this challenge, Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen sent a memo offering districts guidance on how to handle students who attempted to opt-out or refuse the test.
Part of the memo suggested that federal law requires test administration and earlier guidance provided to Murfreesboro City Schools suggested there could be financial penalties if districts failed to administer the tests.
The threat of withholding $3 million in BEP money from Williamson County eventually led that district to resume administration of the EOC tests in high school.
All along, the state has argued a district’s federal funds could be in jeopardy due to refusal to administer the test or a district’s inability to test at least 95% of its students.
As such, the argument goes, districts should fight back against opt-outs and test refusals by adopting policies that penalize students for taking these actions.
There’s just one problem: The federal government has not (yet) penalized a single district for failing to hit the 95% benchmark. In fact, in the face of significant opt-outs in New York last year (including one district where 89% of students opted-out), the U.S. Department of Education communicated a clear message to New York state education leaders: Districts and states will not suffer a loss of federal dollars due to high test refusal rates. The USDOE left it up to New York to decide whether or not to penalize districts financially.
The state’s top education official, Merryl Tisch, had this to say about the prospect of withholding funds from districts:
“I think when you withdraw money from a school district, what you’re doing is you’re hurting the kids in the school district,” she said. “So I don’t think that’s an effective way to deal with it.”
While Tisch expressed frustration with the high opt-out numbers in some districts, her first response was not to punish districts (and their students) by withholding funds. Instead, she called for more communication and transparency surrounding the testing.
This year’s TNReady test lacked transparency and clear communication. As failures mounted, a blame game started. And when parents and some districts had had enough, rather than work through the challenges, Commissioner McQueen’s first response was to threaten sanctions, including the withholding of funds.
That sort of tactic may enable McQueen to get her way in the short-term, but it’s certainly not a way to build the trust and support she’ll need to usher in yet another testing vendor next school year.
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