After thousands of Connecticut students failed to take required statewide achievement tests last spring, federal officials want to know what Connecticut education leaders are doing to ensure it doesn't happen again.
"The U.S. Department of Education is concerned that Connecticut's participation rate did not meet requirements of [federal law]," Moninque M. Chism, the director of the agency's Office of State Support, wrote Connecticut's education commissioner last month. "Let me emphasize the importance of a high-quality, annual statewide assessment system that includes all students so that local leaders and educators have the information they need to help every student succeed."
The state was required to send its plans to improve compliance to the U.S. education department earlier this month, but spokesmen for both the federal and state education departments were unable to provide any details about those plans Monday.
Numerous Connecticut Mirror requests since August for documents showing any guidance the state has provided to districts to boost participation have gone unanswered.
About 11,200 students did not take the state exams last school year — a growing trend referred to as the "opt-out movement." It coincides with growing concern among parents that their children are spending too much school time being tested or prepared for tests.
While Connecticut's statewide participation rate did meet the federal standard, many individual districts did not. One-quarter of public school districts did not test at least 95 percent of their students, the minimum participation rate the federal government expects.
High school students missing the exams were to blame for most of the decline. Of the 148 schools where too many students missed the statewide Smarter Balanced Assessment, nearly three-quarters were high schools. (Curious how many students skipped the test in your school? Click here to find out.)
Connecticut lawmakers earlier this year voted to replace the Smarter Balanced Assessment for high school students with the SAT, an exam many students take regardless.
Aimed at removing one of the many tests high school students must take, it's unclear whether this shift will improve participation rates.
The federal government's letter to Connecticut Education Commissioner Dianna Wentzell emphasizes that the state could lose millions in funding if too many students sit out again.
The federal education department "has a range of enforcement actions at its disposal… The State Education Agency should demonstrate that it has taken or will take appropriate actions to enforce the requirements."
The state's enforcement actions could include cutting funding to school districts, lowering a school's rating, identifying a school as 'high risk' or counting non-participants as non-proficient on the exams.
When releasing the results of this years' exams, Wentzell was vague about how the state plans to address low participation rates and whether funding would be in jeopardy.
"We are going to work with our districts to ensure that we have similar levels of participation," she said. "When the final analysis is done, I believe, it will be a handful, literally, of cases. We may need to issue more severe corrective actions."
On Monday, a spokesman for the department highlighted the state's overall participation rate of 96 percent. The only statewide subgroup not meeting the required 95 percent participation rate were students with disabilities.
"Connecticut is proud of its strong overall participation rate," said Abbe Smith in a statement. "Full participation in the assessment program is an important means to ensure that the public education system is delivering on the promise of high academic expectations and college and career readiness for each and every student. The CSDE will continue working with the local school districts and the U.S. Department of Education to address any questions and ensure continued adherence to [federal] requirements."
Changes to education policy signed into law earlier this month by President Barack Obama did not alter the requirement that 95 percent of students participate in testing. However, it does leave up to the states how to address districts that fall short.
"While we are still digging through the components of the new law, it is clear that the ESSA requires that states administer statewide assessments in reading/language arts and mathematics in grades 3-8 and at least once in high school, and it requires that states build into their accountability systems ways to hold schools and districts that miss the 95 percent participation rate target accountable," a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education wrote in an emailed statement.
The department has informed officials in 13 states so far that too many students missed the exam last spring and the states must come up with plans to ensure every student is tested.
The following chart shows participation rates for charter, magnet and other non-traditional public schools,