After four consecutive years of failing to meet the state's required participation rate for the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) exam, one of the Palo Alto school district's two high schools has made some progress while the other saw higher opt-out rates this year.
More Gunn High School juniors took the standardized test this year than previous years: between 56 percent and 68 percent, depending on different tests on math and English. Parental exemptions dropped from about 65 percent last year to between 27 percent and 29 percent this year, according to district data.
Palo Alto High School, however, saw little improvement. Between 13 percent and 24 percent of juniors took the tests, while parental exemptions increased from about 36 percent in 2017 to 51 percent this year.
California schools are required by federal law to meet a 95 percent participation rate on the test, which measures students' proficiency on the state's Common Core State Standards.
Yolanda Conaway, the district's assistant superintendent of strategic initiatives and operations, attributed the gains at Gunn to more proactive incentives effort (including raffling off prom tickets and parking passes), involvement of parent groups and communication that the test is beneficial for all students and the school as a whole.
Paly's numbers might have been impacted by a leadership transition this year, Conaway said, with former principal Kim Diorio taking a medical leave in late February before announcing her resignation.
"A plan looks great on paper but unless there's someone really intending to the implementation of the plan and making sure it's communicated clearly they tend to be just plans rather than actions and deliverables that are actually going through," Conaway said.
She said she was "disappointed" by both schools' rates and worries the perception about the exam at the high schools has trickled down into the middle schools. Eighth graders are just below the required participation threshold. The elementary schools and sixth and seventh graders show high participation rates.
In February, the month before high school juniors would take the test, Conaway met with school administrators, the district's Research, Assessment and Evaluation Department and special-education department to develop plans to reverse the trend. The state also required the district to create a targeted plan for special-education students, she said.
Conaway suspects outreach should start even earlier, with frequent communication about the importance of the test.
"We know that high opt-out rates are more likely in wealthier, highly resourced districts," she said. "This tells me that non-participation is a conscious choice, largely based on misguided beliefs that the assessments have no value. We definitely have more work to do."
Paly and Gunn have failed to meet the participation requirement since the Smarter Balanced exam rolled out in 2015. Initially, students pushed back against the timing of the test, which was administered the week before Advanced Placement and SAT exams.
But rescheduling and more intentional communication in the next two years did little to improve the rates.
This means less data for the district to be able to assess how students are doing and to address any gaps in instruction, Conaway said.
"I see this as a responsibility of all of us, including parents, students, teachers, site leaders and the board. We will never truly be able to measure how well we are doing for all students and the overall quality of instruction unless we measure it against a standard," she said.
While schools with Title I status, meaning they have high percentages of low-income students, could lose funding if they don't meet the participation threshold, Paly and Gunn are not Title I schools.
The state will report participation rates for the first time this fall on the new California School Dashboard, an online data tool that shows districts' test scores, graduation rates and other measures of student success. The state Department of Education is in the process of determining how participation will be built into districts' "academic indicator," which measures performance on the Smarter Balanced exam.