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Core testing boycott could endanger millions in funding for Idaho schools

BOISE – Lisa Sexton was shocked to hear parents call for a boycott of Idaho’s student testing at hearings this fall, even at the price of losing federal funding for the state’s cash-strapped schools.

“I was thinking, ‘You have no idea,’ ” recalled Sexton, assistant superintendent of the Lakeland School District. “You don’t understand how many millions of dollars that is.”

States – and school districts – are required to have at least 95 percent participation in annual student testing.

Failure to meet that threshold could mean states or districts lose some or all of their federal funding, the largest portion of which goes to Title I programs for poor and disadvantaged students, said Blake Youde, spokesman for the Idaho Board of Education.

Idaho school districts received $57.2 million in Title I funding last year. Lakeland schools alone received $601,075. Coeur d’Alene schools received $1.5 million; Post Falls, $1.2 million.

“It is a big, heavy price tag that the state could have to pay if they did not meet the requirements,” said state Sen. Mary Souza, R-Coeur d’Alene.

Yet Souza sponsored an unsuccessful “parental rights” bill this year that sought to require all Idaho school districts to develop an opt-out process for parents, allowing them to withdraw their children from “any learning activity or material” to which they object. The bill passed the Senate but died without a hearing in the House Education Committee.

Souza said the bill died because of concerns about the financial burden on the state if too many parents opted their children out of the test, even though the legislation didn’t specifically mention it. Idaho contracts with the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium to provide standardized testing.

The state has two years remaining on a five-year contract with SBAC for the Idaho Standards Achievement Test, which students take in the spring and is tied to the new Idaho Core standards for learning at each grade level.

Souza said she hasn’t decided whether to bring back her bill in the upcoming legislative session.

A separate House parental rights bill that passed both houses this year affirms parental rights, subject to Idaho law and the state constitution. The Idaho Constitution makes school attendance mandatory but allows parents to satisfy that requirement through private schools or by home-schooling their children with no state oversight.

Last year, Idaho’s participation rate for students taking the ISAT was 97.8 percent.

“It’s a complicated issue – it’s money, and it’s big money,” Souza said after the state Board of Education this week approved minor, mostly technical changes in the testing program. Souza had joined parents, teachers and others with concerns about the test at two North Idaho hearings on the rule changes, where some parents urged others to refuse to allow their kids to be tested.

“I’ve never encouraged anyone to opt out of the test,” Souza said. “I’ve always said you need to do what’s best for your child.”

Title I was part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, first passed by Congress in 1965, and reauthorized several times since; the latest reauthorization is pending now in Congress. It is the largest source of federal funds to local schools, which get the money directly based on the number of students from low-income families, who are in foster care or who are otherwise disadvantaged. Most of the money goes to help elementary age students; in Coeur d’Alene, it pays for a wide variety of programming and items, including boots for homeless kids, instructional coaches for reading, math and special education, and remedial programs for struggling readers.

Congress added testing requirements to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1974, and in 1996, required statewide assessments to measure student performance. That was long before the current debate about Common Core standards and the SBAC test, which measures learning against the standards.

“We’ve been testing kids on a state assessment for over a decade in Idaho,” said Sexton, a longtime teacher and school administrator. Her final year as a school principal, 2012-13, was the first time she ever heard from a parent who didn’t want a child tested. “And it was just this one parent, out of 530 kids,” she said.

This year, Sexton said, the Lakeland district has heard from parents of about 10 students who didn’t want their kids tested and kept them out of school on the test day.

The rule change hearings drew people with concerns about SBAC testing, including Sexton, who said during a hearing at Lakeland High School that the test is too lengthy and tests students on material they haven’t yet been taught. A teacher said she’s found Common Core helpful in teaching but had issues with the testing.

Other parents expressed concerns about Common Core, including fears that it would introduce their children to Islam and concerns over how it teaches math. Some suggested it was tied to the United Nations or was unconstitutional. One called for a push to get 7 percent of parents to refuse to have their kids tested – enough to violate the 95 percent participation requirement.

When Souza warned that that could jeopardize federal funds, Cindy Goodbrake, a parent from Sandpoint, said, “Then let’s figure out how we can get rid of their money and do it ourselves.”

Souza responded, “There’s a funding issue. I’m not defending it – I think the more we’re dependent on federal money, we’ll pay more in taxes.” But she said she believes state schools Superintendent Sherri Ybarra has been listening to Idaho parents’ concerns and is looking to change the testing after the contract runs out.

“I actually think that she’s been doing a very good job,” Souza said this week. “She’s been listening, she’s been trying to respond, but she, as well, is caught in this complicated situation of commitments and financial commitments that were made before she came into office.”

“Title I funding is essential for our most vulnerable students across the state, and it is my job as superintendent to protect funding for those students,” Ybarra said. She said her hope is that in the coming years, Idaho will have “an assessment system which provides flexibility to districts and moves away from being punitive to being supportive of local educational leaders.”

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