Friday, July 15, 2016 | 2 a.m.
Even in the wake of an embarrassing technical snafu with the state’s main Common Core assessment last year, few Nevadans seem to be opting out of the test.
In Clark County, the largest district in the state and fifth largest in the country, only 56 students opted out of the Smarter Balanced Assessment this year, according to district records. That’s down from around 75 in spring 2015, the first time the controversial SBAC was administered.
The testing period started in April and finished at the end of May. Statewide, more than 200,000 students in grades three through eight are eligible to take the test which, among other things, allows administrators and the federal government to see how each student and school in the country is performing in reading and math.
While Clark County saw a decrease, opt-outs statewide are slightly up from last year.
In Washoe County, the second-largest school district in the state, schools saw around 40 more opt-outs over last year. Most of those were in grades four and seven.
John Eppolito, a Lake Tahoe real estate agent and unofficial leader of the opt-out movement in Nevada, largely blames the media for the low opt-out rates, claiming a refusal to cover the issue has left many families in the dark.
“It’s very hard to educate parents. Most don’t have any idea what’s going on," said Eppolito, who led the charge to ban Common Core during last year’s legislative session. “If parents knew, a lot more would opt out."
The test, which is taken online, is controversial for a couple of reasons. Some activists, including Eppolito, claim it is used by the federal government to gather personal data on students. It should be noted, though, that education data groups like the Data Quality Campaign say the information is aggregated by the time it reaches Washington, D.C.
But many decry the test as intrusive and stressful for kids and school staff alike, as they take hours and often days to fully complete.
The SBAC and the PARCC are the two major Common Core standardized tests in the country. But since their height in 2010 in 45 states, both tests have fallen out of favor. Now only 20 states use one or both of them.
Nevada is one, though the SBAC’s rollout here didn’t exactly do wonders for its image. A majority of students in Clark County were unable to take the test due to technical problems, which wasted everyone’s time and caused the state to miss the federal government’s requirement of testing at least 95 percent of eligible students. The state subsequently sued the testing company and the test's creator for a combined settlement of $3 million and hired another contractor to handle it.
Despite its outsider reputation, Nevada has never been much of a hot spot for the opt-out movement. Those honors largely belong to East Coast states like New York, where intense activism by teachers unions have led more than 70 percent of students in some districts to opt out of the test.
The process of opting out also has been sketchy. A legal review by Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt determined it was up to each school district how to handle test refusals.
In Clark County, parents are made to fill out a form acknowledging the consequences for schools when students don’t take the test.
Tabitha Hugdahl, whose 9-year-old son Carter refused to take the SBAC at Mack Elementary this year, believes she was denied renewal of a zone variance to the school because of it. Zone variances allow families to send their students to schools they aren’t zoned for based on where they live.
“Although it is a parent’s right to opt out of testing, our school’s participation rate suffered, which in turn worked against our school meeting its goal of 100 percent participation,” the school told Hugdahl in a letter.
Hugdahl appealed the decision, which the district denied, claiming the school was already overcrowded and that Hugdahl had missed a filing deadline.
“Do you give up what you believe in, or do you let them make him take the test?” Hughdahl said.
In Summerlin, parent Kim Punzal said she was bombarded with emails and voicemails from school staff this year asking her to reconsider letting her son take the SBAC at Ober Elementary.
“I was told: ‘We need this data on (your son),’” she said. “I said, ‘He’s been in your class since last August; what else do you need?’ I honestly didn’t want to talk about it. I knew I had a right not to.”
According to the district, parents are not supposed to lose privileges like zone variances due to opting out, but administrators don’t stop principals and teachers from reaching out to parents directly.
“Principals are educators, and they’re always going to have conversations about what’s best for the students,” said Mike Barton, the district’s chief student achievement officer.
All things considered, the SBAC testing this year went smoothly. The problems that plagued it last year failed to materialize again, and the state is waiting as the results are processed by the testing company.