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'Smarter Balanced' Test Rolls On Despite 'Opt-Out' Controversy

Last week, New Hampshire's third through eighth graders and one high school grade began taking a new standardized test: the Smarter Balanced.

As the lasting legacy of the federal education law, No Child Left Behind, and because they are tied to the latest political football in education policy, the Common Core State Standards, these tests carry a lot of baggage with them. But despite the hand-wringing that preceded the Smarter Balanced – including much debate as to whether parents should or can opt their children out of the exam – for most schools this is just another year of testing.

The Nashua school district (like many across the state and nation) has been getting ready for the Smarter Balanced Assessment for years.

“Practice test, pilot test, field test, training test,” recounts Jennifer Seusing, Assistant Superintendent in Nashua, “We’ve participated in all aspects of it.”

Now the test has begun, but as of the middle of last week, only Nashua’s third graders had tested so far. And Seusing says after all of the build-up for this big, new test that is on computers, includes a long multi-part math question and a written portion on the English side, the real thing was a bit of a come down.

“I was walking out the door [of a third grade classroom],” Seusing recalls, “and I heard the teacher say to the kids, ‘So what did you think kids?’ and they said, ‘You know what, it wasn’t as long as we thought it would be, it wasn’t as hard as we thought it was going to be.’”

Not Many ‘Opting Out’ In NH

Most districts will tell you the test has caused relatively minimal disruption to the school day, thus far, but that’s not to say there hasn’t been a great deal of hue and cry as the assessment rolls out. In certain states, there has been a concerted effort to get large numbers of students and parents to refuse to take the latest round of standardized tests.

In both Manchester and Nashua political opposition to standardized testing led to school boards sending letters home informing parents they had a right to pull their kids from the exam.

“They do have a right, a parental right to refusal, which they’ve had prior to smarter balanced, and will have – most likely, unless they become a dictator state – after Smarter Balanced,” says David Ryan, Manchester’s Assistant Superintendent.

So-far in his district, 196 parents have sent letters to the district asking to opt out of the exam. That seems to be by far the biggest population of parents opting out in the state, but it’s still only 1 percent of the students in the district.

Federal rules require that 95 percent of students take the assessment, and only if a district slips below that bar does it face sanction, though that would likely come only after the State Department of Education works with the schools to try to get their numbers up.

In other districts, the numbers are even lower, even in Nashua – where parents were told students would be given an excused absence if they stayed home. Nashua has not compiled the numbers for each grade yet, but for the grade that has been in tests so far opt-outs were in the single digits.

According to Superintendents across the state there seem to only be a smattering of opt-outs elsewhere: 26 in Londonderry, and the a few each in the Kearsarge Oyster River, Salem, Dover and Oyster River Districts. Wherever parents pull their students out of the exam, districts are treading very carefully.

A bill before the legislature aims to give parents the legally defined choice to opt-out of state-wide tests, but as things stand now schools aren’t supposed to let kids skip the test. The state Department of Education has issued a letter which says parents don’t have the right to opt-out, though they can keep their students home from school. If a student refuses the exam, the letter says quote “the school should respond in a manner similar to any other instance where a student refuses to participate.”

But in Manchester, students who refuse are being allowed to study in the library, or go to class.

David Ryan insists that’s their best option. “We can’t physically stand over a child, and force him or her to take a test. Nor would we want to, that’s not our role,” he says.

Just Another Assessment

While for many adults – especially those who are into politics – this test carries all the weight of the education policy fights of the day. For students, who are already veterans of standardized tests, this is just another assessment.

Dillon Roux and Chris Hunt are brothers from Manchester in 8th and 4th grade. They haven’t yet taken the test. Roux says he knows that the Smarter Balanced “is replacing the NECAPs, that’s really all that they’ve told us.” He also notes he’s happy to take a test on a computer instead of pencil and paper.

Hunt says he knows that “you don’t have to do [the Smarter Balanced] if your parents hold you back, but you still have to go to school.”

When asked if they are anxious about the test, both shrug the question off.

“No. It’s whatever,” says Roux.

“No, it’s math and I’m really good at Math,” replies Hunt.

Students are much more likely to care about the day-to-day execution of the test, and on that front there have been some glitches. When the test went live, the software vendor changed how the tests were labeled, which confused several districts. At least five districts administered a practice test by mistake: Manchester, Barrington, Lyme, Gorham, and Concord. Those students will have to repeat that day of testing.

Schools will have until mid-June to finish administering the Smarter Balanced.

Sam Evans-Brown has been working for New Hampshire Public Radio since 2010, when he began as a freelancer. He shifted gears in 2016 and began producing Outside/In, a podcast and radio show about “the natural world and how we use it.” His work has won him several awards, including two regional Edward R. Murrow awards, one national Murrow, and the Overseas Press Club of America's award for best environmental reporting in any medium. He studied Politics and Spanish at Bates College, and before reporting was variously employed as a Spanish teacher, farmer, bicycle mechanic, ski coach, research assistant, a wilderness trip leader and a technical supporter.
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