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Schools could lose some funding if lots of students repeatedly opt out of tests

Alberto G.
Flickr creative commons

As the Ann Arbor school board considers cracking down on students who opt out of state tests, we’re now getting a clearer picture of why the board is so worried about the “opt out” movement.

The Michigan Department of Education says it could cut a portion of any district’s federal funding, if a single school in that district misses a test-participation requirement for four years in a row.

“There is no mechanism for students to ‘opt out’ of the state assessments,” said Martin Ackley of the Michigan Department of Education in an email.

Ackley says the federal No Child Left Behind Act requires 95% student participation in state standardized tests.

And he says if a single school misses that 95% mark for four years in a row, then a quarter of the entire school district’s Title I funding could be cut.

"Schools not meeting that law will be impacted with a series of consequences, leading to the withholding of federal Title I funds until the school meets the 95% threshold ultimately."

“Schools not meeting that law will be impacted with a series of consequences, leading to the withholding of federal Title I funds until the school meets the 95% threshold ultimately,” says Ackley.

So what is Title I funding, and would losing it be a big deal?

Title I is a federal program that gives schools money if they have high percentages of low-income students, “to help ensure that all children meet challenging state academic standards,” according to theU.S. Department of Education.

The Ann Arbor school district is expected to get $1.4 million in Title I money next school year,according to state estimates.

And while losing a quarter of that money would be bad for the district, school board president Deb Mexicotte says the state could go farther in cracking down on districts and schools that don't meet that 95% benchmark. 

"The state has always had additional evaluation of schools and districts, and has enforced those additional evaluation standards in my time on the board," Mexicotte says. 

What could this mean for Ann Arbor and other districts?

Right now, the Ann Arbor school board is considering a new policy meant to crack down on parents who opt their kids out of state tests. It's expected to take it up at its meeting tonight.

If students don’t sit for those tests, the policy says they could lose their spots in magnet (or application-based) schools and programs.

This is after about 100 students at Ann Arbor Open, a magnet school, opted out of Michigan's new standardized test, called the M-STEP.

That put the school below the 95% testing rate required by No Child Left Behind.

Why is the state so strict about how many kids sit for these tests? 

The state stresses that there are intermediary steps or “interventions” before it would impose sanctions.

1)    The first year a school misses the 95% test participation rate, the school gets a letter explaining that the benchmark has been missed, and outlines the consequences if that becomes a trend

2)    The second year this happens, there’s an state investigation into why the school is missing the test participation benchmark, and a plan is put forward to solve it

3)    The third year, there’s “technical assistance” from the state

4)    By year four, the whole district could have 25% of its Title I funds withheld  

“The motivation is not to penalize, but to motivate,” says Martin Ackley of the Michigan Department of Education.

He says when Congress passed No Child Left Behind, it wanted to make sure schools didn't have low-performing kids sit out of the tests.

So it made participation rates a requirement, too.

“There was a concern that some schools try to game the system by having students who they think might not score well, just not take the test,” says Ackley. 

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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