ISAT report card: Opt-outs scarce, glitches are minimal

(UPDATED, 7:12 a.m., with Madison’s decision Thursday to administer the ISAT.)

Eastern Idaho’s Madison School District has dropped its plans to opt out of Idaho’s new Common Core-aligned tests — ending what was, evidently, an isolated protest.

Meanwhile, districts say they are having few technical problems administering the Idaho Standards Achievement Test by Smarter Balanced.

For the first time, the new online assessment is being used to measure school performance and student growth. Testing began in late March.

How are things going so far?

Opt-out numbers

State Department of Education officials are watching student participation rates closely — because they say the state has a considerable stake in the outcome.

A waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind education law stipulates that 95 percent of students take an end-of-year assessment. If the state fails to hit this threshold, $11.6 million in federal funding is at risk, said Tim Corder, special assistant to state superintendent Sherri Ybarra.

Madison had threatened to pull its 5,200 students out of the ISAT, in favor of the multiple-choice Measures of Academic Progress exam. District officials said the MAP would be cheaper and less time-consuming, and provide student data in real time.

Since Madison comprises close to 2 percent of the state’s student population of 291,000, the district’s opt-out decision raised questions about whether the state can hit its 95 percent threshold — and drew the attention of state officials, including Gov. Butch Otter. Madison changed course Thursday and said it will administer the ISAT after all.

But even before Thursday’s board vote, Madison trustees appeared to be going it alone.

“We’ve had anecdotal reports of a few parents opting not to have their child take the test, but nothing significant that we know of right now,” Ybarra spokesman Kelly Everitt said Monday.

That seems to bear out, based on reports from several districts:

  • The West Ada district has had “a few” opt-out requests, spokesman Eric Exline said. At 36,513 students, West Ada is Idaho’s largest district, accounting for more than 12 percent of statewide enrollment.
  • Boise, with an enrollment of 25,912, has seen only a “handful” of students opt out, said spokesman Dan Hollar.
  • Pocatello has received five opt-out requests, said district spokeswoman Shelley Allen. The district has 12,504 students.
  • Similarly, Coeur d’Alene has received opt-out requests from only five families, spokeswoman Laura Rumpler said. The district has 10,450 students.
  • Vallivue has received three opt-out forms, Superintendent Pat Charlton said. The Canyon County district has 7,847 students.
  • In Kuna, six parents inquired about opting out, but only one parent followed through, superintendent Wendy Johnson said. At 5,217 students, Kuna’s enrollment closely mirrors Madison’s.

Eastern Idaho’s Bonneville School District expects a relatively high number of opt-outs. But administrators are taking a harder line on opting out.

This has nothing to do with the state’s primary concern, the feds’ 95 percent participation requirement — but instead it has to do with the State Board of Education rule that requires districts to administer an end-of-year assessment.

Bonneville is taking that mandate to heart, district testing director Scott Woolstenhulme said. So, if parents don’t want their children taking the new ISAT, they have to formally excuse their children from the test. Woolstenhulme expects maybe 40 to 50 parents to follow through this year. In 2014 — when parents could pull their kids from the trial run of the ISAT, no questions asked — about 200 parents did so.

Technology and time

The new version of the ISAT is aligned to the new Idaho Core Standards in math and English language arts. As a result, the test is intertwined in the debate over the new academic standards.

But other questions surround the test, centered on technological and time-management concerns. The new ISAT is an online exam, with multiple phases that are expected to take several hours to complete.

State and district officials report some hiccups with the rollout — for example, audio failures have been a recurring glitch. But so far, they say, problems have been minimal.

Even though this is the first year the ISAT counts, school and district officials knew what to expect. “This is the third year the state and districts have given this assessment so most issues were worked out the past two years,” said Angela Hemingway, the State Department of Education’s assessment and accountability director.

In some districts, the testing process is taking longer than expected.

That may be a function of computer savvy. In Kuna, students seem to need more time to complete the test because they are struggling with their keyboarding skills. Johnson said.

But students may be spending more time on the test this year, simply because they know it counts this time around.

“I think the kids are paying a little more attention to it,” said Jodie Mills, the curriculum and instruction director for the Caldwell School District. “Kids really look like they’re doing their very best.”