As public school 10th graders in Colorado get ready to take PSAT, one dad questions version
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With Colorado's public schools deep into what's become a thorny thicket of standardized testing, some parents say they felt pressured to have their students take the exams this year.

That's despite education officials and lawmakers decreeing last year that parents again could refuse without students, districts or schools being penalized.

Parents are being duped into testing, said Cheryl Darnell, a former teacher whose children attend schools in Lewis-Palmer School District 38 in Monument.

"There's so much confusion," she said. "Some schools are respecting refusals and some are not. They're telling parents they could lose funding or accreditation."

That's not the case, said Steve Durham, president of the Colorado State Board of Education who represents the 5th Congressional District of Colorado Springs.

"The Legislature clarified last year parental rights relative to testing, and the State Board made it clear there would be no penalties to school districts for failure to meet the 95 percent participation," he said. "So I don't think there's anything left in doubt."

Technically, state policy says districts and schools that fall below the federal requirement of 95 percent participation for math and English assessments for reasons other than parent-opt out will see their rating lowered one accreditation level.

In February 2015, the State Board voted to not hold districts liable when parents do not allow their children to take this month's English and math exams.

On top of that, the federal government last November approved the state's request for a waiver seeking no withholding of federal funding for high refusals.

"So why are school officials telling us differently?" Darnell asked.

Durham said he has received a few complaints of examples he would characterize as pressure.

"But I haven't run across where I thought that it was anything undue," he said. "I think explaining the benefits of testing as the districts see them are perfectly legitimate."

Districts must "engage in good faith efforts to test all students in accordance with state and federal law, and maintain documentation of parent refusals," according to the Colorado Department of Education.

Some are using fear tactics, though, said parent Kristen McWilliams, who said the issue prompted her to move her children from one local district to another this school year.

"It's almost like these tests have pitted parents against their school," she said. "Parents are stuck - they want to do what is best for their child, but they're afraid if they do what they want to do, they will hurt their school."

Some parents have taken their frustration to social media.

"Teachers are telling my daughter, who is in high school, it's not an option to opt out - you're messing with my paycheck by doing this," said one local parent who asked not to be identified. "A lot of people are confused, and I'm wondering, where is the miscommunication?"

In some districts, it's coming from the top down. The Classical Academy, the largest brick-and-mortar charter school in the state with nearly 3,300 students, sent a letter to parents stating, "For 2016, the requirement to assess at least 95 percent of all students has not been removed, and failing to meet this requirement could adversely affect our school and district accreditation and/or funding."

The school, in Academy School District 20, doesn't want to take any chances, said spokeswoman Tisha Harris.

"There's a lot up in the air, a lot we don't know," she said.

Because all the tests - English, math, science and social studies - were new in content and format in Colorado last year, the State Board put a hold on its accreditation rankings as well as test scores impacting teacher performance reviews and potentially pay increases. Both of those are back in place this school year.

"In communicating with our families about the state-mandated tests, we have been clear that any school or district in the state not meeting the 95 percent threshold could be impacted," Harris said. "Both state and federal legislation explicitly specify the 95 percent participation threshold."

At an elementary school in Lewis-Palmer D-38, parents who turned in refusal forms got a phone call from a school official asking if they were aware there would be opt-out penalties to their school.

"At this point, we are not certain of what schools will have to do to respond to the participation rate issue because the state has not informed us of this yet," D-38 spokeswoman Julie Stephen said in response.

Cheyenne Mountain School District 12 also sent a letter to parents saying test results will be considered for school accreditation status, which exponentially decreased opt-out numbers over last year.

Although lawmakers lessened the frequency and time of testing for this school year, some parents object to the new tests for reasons that include data privacy, validity, federal intrusion into state's rights and other issues.

Darnell is part of an organized parent group spanning D-38, Academy School District 20 and Falcon School District 49 that's "working together to bring awareness of and stop Common Core and PARCC testing in our schools."

Her children did not take the tests again. It's not that she doesn't think student performance should be measured. It's that the assessments are too high-stakes and carry too much weight, too unreliable, too intrusive and push too many agendas.

"I really don't think the legislation has really improved the testing," she said. "They've reduced some of it, which is good, but it's still the same test."

Darnell said she has called several universities across the nation and none use standardized testing in acceptance policies and do not look at school accreditation.

"I believe students can be assessed without these tests," she said.

That may be in the pipeline. A rewritten federal education law known as the Every Student Succeeds Act is adding more uncertainty to the picture, as states will be given more flexibility with testing in terms of goals and measures for student achievement and school improvement.

Starting May 4, teams will conduct "listening tours" around Colorado to help form the state's plan to comply with the new law, which President Obama signed in December 2015.

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