For the third year in a row, high school juniors in the Palo Alto Unified School District opted out of the state's new standardized test this spring at what appear to be abnormally high rates compared to other local school districts.
Only 13 percent of Palo Alto High School juniors and 21 percent of Gunn High School juniors took the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) exam, according to the district. About half of the junior classes at both schools opted out in 2015, the first year the test would yield results for the district, and again last year.
While these numbers are provisional -- the state will release official participation rates in September -- school officials do not expect them to change significantly.
Students are allowed to opt out of the new Common Core State Standards testing with permission from their parents. The school district has worked to increase participation since 2015 by scheduling the two days of testing further away from Advanced Placement and SAT exams and giving the test on instructional days.
Neighboring school districts are not seeing similarly high opt-out rates. At Los Altos High School, 93 percent of juniors took the test this year, according to the district. At Mountain View High School, 85 percent of juniors participated in the math section and 86 percent, the English language arts portion. Students there have participated at similar rates since the 2014-15 school year, the district said.
And while in 2015 Fremont High School in Sunnyvale also saw an "uncharacteristically large number" of juniors — 40 percent — opt out due to the scheduling of the test, efforts there have yielded better rates in recent years, said Rachel Zlotziver, communications coordinator for the Fremont Union High School District. In 2016, 84 percent of juniors took the exam, and went up to 94 percent this year. The district's four other high schools have seen consistently high participation rates, 94 percent and above, since 2015.
Fremont Union worked to emphasize with students that the test results are "extremely valuable in helping us assess how we are doing in terms of instruction and meeting the needs of our students" and sent specific communications home to Fremont High School families, Zlotziver said.
Palo Alto Unified did the same this year, though with less positive results. In a February message, Superintendent Max McGee reminded students and parents that the results "may be used to assess the quality of our school and its programs, determine statewide and national rankings, impact state accountability reports" and provide data for the schools' accreditation processes. Students can also use the test results to qualify for the State Seal of Biliteracy and for early assessments at participating California State University and community colleges, according to the district.
Statewide, less than 1 percent of eligible students opted out of the exam in 2016, according to the California Department of Education. The highest exemption rates were among high school juniors. (Third- through eighth-graders also take the test. In Palo Alto Unified, about 95 percent of elementary and middle schoolers participated this year, according to the district.)
Although Paly and Gunn are not Title I schools, or schools with high numbers of low-income students that receive federal funding, the low participation rates have had a financial impact.
Judy Argumedo, director of academic supports for the district, told the Weekly that she was hoping to use extra Title I funds the district received from the federal government this year to expand the high schools' Advancement Via Individual Determination, or AVID, programs, which provide targeted support to low-income students. But because the schools have failed to meet the federal government's 95 percent participation rate on the Smarter Balanced test for three years in a row, giving them Title I funds would have triggered "program improvement" status. Title I-funded schools that fail to make adequate yearly progress are identified for program improvement under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. (This act has been replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act, with 2016-17 designated as a transition year.)
Argumedo said she found other ways to fund support for low-income high school students, such as partnering with a private tutoring company, but said she's "very concerned" about the impact on the district's ability to track and measure these students over time. There are not many other standardized measures for comparing Palo Alto Unified to districts across the state, she said.
Many students, however, continue to see the standardized test as removed from any tangible benefit.
Alvin Hom, a rising Gunn senior, said he and many of his classmates chose to opt out this spring to use the two days to sleep, catch up on homework and studying. He also "did not see any major benefits for taking the test.
"The school said we use this test to compare data amongst the students, but we already have other standardized tests and measurements to compare students," Hom said. "Ultimately, many people did not have true incentives to take the test and would rather have the time off."
Rising Gunn senior Advait Arun, however, took the test. His mother, a fifth-grade teacher, would not give him permission to opt out given the potential impact on federal funding, he said. Argumedo similarly made sure her daughter, a Gunn junior this spring, took the test, although the prevailing "message" among students was "'we're not going to take it; it's not important,'" Argumedo said.
After three years of high opt-out rates at the high schools, the district is at a loss for how to reverse the trend, though is still looking for ways to improve next year, said Director of Research and Assessment Chris Kolar. District officials have reached out to neighboring districts and to the Santa Clara County Office of Education for ideas, he said.
"We just have failed to capture the imagination and spirit of the parents and students who are participating in this one," Kolar said. "I'm not sure exactly what would make the change large enough (to get us) where we need to be."
Argumedo said she encourages other parents to have their students take the test next year.
"We're a public institution," she said. "We have to honor the assessments and measures that we're asked to do."