Oregon got a big thumbs up from the federal government Thursday for the way it plans to hold schools accountable for results.

But anyone who takes that as a sign that the U.S. Department of Education is OK with Oregon’s new law making it easy for parents to exempt their children from standardized reading and math tests would be sorely mistaken.

The federal agency takes seriously the requirement that states must test at least 95 percent of students, both overall and in specific categories such as low-income or special education, in order to get an accurate read on how well schools are serving all students, said Dorrie Nolt, press secretary to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

The only reason Oregon hasn’t lost federal funding yet is that it hasn’t reported any widespread failure to test enough students – and it has imposed appropriate consequences on schools where few students took tests, Nolt said.

“Assessing all students is both a legal requirement and a civil rights issue,” Nolt said.

On Thursday, the U.S. Department of Education granted Oregon a three-year reprieve from certain onerous requirements of the No Child Left Behind law. Oregon’s school accountability plans, after years of getting provisional approval and federal warnings, met federal muster, regulators said. In particular, the feds said Oregon had convinced them it has a solid approach to ensuring teachers and principals are evaluated in part based on how far they raise students’ test scores from one year to the next.

At least one national news outlet, Education Week, treated that as a vindication, or at least tolerance, of Oregon’s testing opt out law, considered one of the strongest in the country.

Over federal objections, the Oregon legislature passed a law requiring that parents be notified twice a year of their rights to exempt their children from state reading and math tests. The law says schools can’t refuse to exempt any student. And it requires the state to issue two performance ratings for schools that test too few students: One that includes the traditional penalty for failing to test enough students and one that rates the schools on the partial test results with no penalty for missing scores.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said opting out of testing is a bad idea for students and schools, but she signed the bill. The Oregon Education Association, which opposes using Smarter Balanced tests for accountability, called that a big win.

Six other states also received waivers from No Child Left Behind provisions Thursday. Education Week headlined its article this way: “Seven States Get NCLB Waiver Renewals, Including Opt-Out Friendly Oregon.”

One Education Week reporter Tweeted this:

Nolt, however, made it clear that Oregon still faces not only fierce disapproval but potentially multimillion-dollar consequences if it ends up allowing large number of students not to take Smarter Balanced reading and math tests next year.

It could even face consequences once it reports to the federal government on this year’s Smarter Balanced scores, because state officials have estimated about 5 percent of students sat out the test this year with their schools’ approval. That means lots of schools fell short of the 95 percent requirement.

Nolt reiterated that the 95 percent is non-negotiable.”We have never given flexibility on that part of the law. That requirement has remained since No Child Left Behind was enacted” in 2001, she said.

Nolt released a statement from her department that said the following:

“As we have said repeatedly, it is the responsibility of states to ensure that all students are assessed annually because it gives educators and parents an idea of how the student is doing and ensures that schools are paying attention to traditionally under-served populations like low-income students, students of color, students with disabilities and English language learners.

“The department has not had to withhold money — yet — over this requirement because states have either complied or have appropriately addressed the issue with schools or districts that assessed less than 95 percent of students.

“We have expressed concern to the governor and Oregon Department of Education that this legislation goes beyond what other states have done and could decrease student participation in the state assessment, increasing the likelihood that Oregon will not meet its obligations under federal law.

“Educators need and families have a right to the useful information on student learning progress that these assessments provide; not taking the test only hurts kids, obscures achievement gaps for disadvantaged students, and makes the results less useful for everyone.

“We are confident that Oregon’s leaders understand their responsibility to ensure all students are assessed annually, and we will continue to look to them to take the appropriate steps on behalf of all kids in the state.”

When Brown signed the bill approving the opt-out law, she said she wants Oregon educators to make the case to parents that taking part in state tests is valuable so that they will opt for their children to keep taking the exams.

“Educators must engage with parents about the value of assessment and the potential consequences if parents opt out and student participation diminishes,” she said. “We cannot afford to risk losing federal dollars, especially for students who have been traditionally underserved.”

Brown said she plans to “work with federal partners to ensure our funding is maintained.”

— Betsy Hammond

[email protected]

503-294-7623; @chalkup

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