A growing number of parents in Hamilton County are telling schools they don't want their children taking the new standardized assessment the state is rolling out this year.
On Monday, students across Tennessee will begin taking the new standardized test — TNReady — but more than 117 families in Hamilton County have notified school officials of plans to opt their children out of the testing, calling it excessive and developmentally inappropriate.
"I'm not opposed to testing," said Heather DeGaetano, a parent who is opting her child out of testing this year. "It has a good place, but putting an elementary kid in that position for this long is wasting weeks of instructional time."
TNReady is a revision of the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, known as TCAP, and is intended to measure students' critical thinking and problem-solving skills. It was developed to be taken online, which many critics say could hurt student outcomes on the test.
The new assessment is administered over the course of about seven weeks, instead of during a chunk of sequential days like the previous TCAP. Principals fear this lengthy testing period will disrupt schools for weeks while testing is taking place.
Despite the growing number of families who want to opt out of testing, Ashley Ball, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Education, said that's not an option under the law.
"Given both the importance and legal obligation, our department's policy is that parents may not opt a child out of participating in state assessments," she wrote in an email Friday.
According to the state's accountability system, school districts that do not test 95 percent of students will automatically be classified as "In Need of Improvement." Schools that fail to test 95 percent of students will be ineligible for Reward School status, the state's highest honor for schools, Ball said.
Kirk Kelly, assistant superintendent for testing and accountability for Hamilton County Schools, said schools in which more than 5 percent of students don't test could be impacted and the school could be flagged, but he does not anticipate the school's funding will be affected.
"It may be too early to say what consequences there are for schools that don't meet 95 percent," Kelly said. "The consequences aren't known at this time."
School districts should address student absences on testing days the same way they would address a student's failure to participate in any other mandatory activity at school according to the district's attendance policy, Ball said.
Jill Levine, principal at Normal Park Museum Magnet School, said she is not endorsing the opt-out movement, but understands why parents are making that decision. She plans to accommodate students whose parents have requested they not test.
As of Friday night, more than 140 students, the majority of those opting-out of testing in Hamilton County, attend Normal Park, according to Levine.
She said many of the parents electing to opt-out their children are doing so because of the increased level of stress and anxiety that can come with this much testing, and because it is a way of expressing concern about the amount of testing and dysfunctionality of the testing system in Tennessee.
Levine said students at Normal Park whose parents do not want them to be tested will be in another classroom during test times and working on assignments related to the subject in which their classmates are being tested.
It will be unfortunate if the state decides to penalize schools that have engaged parents advocating for what is best for kids in public education, Levine said.
"For years, we have asked people to speak out about public education," Levine said. "We're at the point now where parents are speaking out and advocating, and as educators we need to respect that."
Julie Floyd's children attend Big Ridge Elementary, and she said her family considered opting the kids out of testing, but ultimately decided not to because the only option provided for students at the school is to be absent for the entire six-week testing window.
"I feel that I would do more harm pulling them out of six weeks of instruction than if I allow them to take the test," Floyd wrote in an email. "I do hope that this movement attracts the attention of the Department of Education, and the many elected officials that make these decisions for our schools and our future."
TNReady was designed to be taken online, but due to some "logistical challenges," the Tennessee Department of Education sent a letter to school districts Jan. 22 informing them that they could administer the test with paper and pencil.
The letter warned schools against using iPads for testing, saying they were experiencing some glitches with the testing platform.
Kelly said about five schools in Hamilton County planned to use iPads for testing. As of Friday afternoon, every school in the district except Calvin Donaldson Elementary, Hillcrest Elementary, Thrasher Elementary and Lookout Valley Elementary should be able to test online, Kelly said.
The online nature of the test also has stirred concern among principals in Hamilton County, with many saying students are being robbed of instructional time in order to learn how to use the online testing platform, which is often glitchy.
Ball said the Tennessee Department of Education has been working with Hamilton County to help identify and strengthen issues in the district's infrastructure caused by the heavy demand on the testing platform, and that many of the issues have been resolved.
Kelly said as of Friday afternoon he thinks the network will remain stable during testing. He said principals are anxious about the next couple of months of testing, and some are having to rework testing schedules several times due to the online nature of the test and the lack of devices at some schools.
Contact staff writer Kendi Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6592. Follow on twitter @kendi_and.