The Providence Journal reports this morning that standardized testing is not mandatory for Rhode Island students. While that is technically true, it is also true that Rhode Island has no official procedure for parents and students to opt out of annual testing, and parents may encounter significant resistance if they attempt to do so.
A spokesman for the State Department of Education says parents are not required by law to have their children do anything other than attend school. However, once they are in school, children are expected to participate in the academic program.
Because testing takes place over a 4-5 day period, it would take more than a "mental health day" on test day to avoid the test. Standardized testing usually takes place in increments, so the student would miss regular classes along with test sessions. Also, there are additional days scheduled for makeup tests.
While testing may not technically be mandatory for students, it is mandatory for schools. Federal law requires every state to test students annually and track their scores. States, in turn, require schools to administer the tests.
Another factor the Journal omits, is that schools have a significant incentive to administer the tests to as many students as possible. That's because public schools are rated, in part, on the percentage of their students who participate in annual testing. The measure is part of a school's annual "report card" calculated by the state.
Rhode Island is about to switch from the NECAP exam to the PARCC exam for its annual testing. While this could provide an opportunity to craft an official opt-out process, it is unlikely to bring any significant change in the broader policy on testing, driven as it is by federal policy.
It is also worth noting that as of 2020, Rhode Island students will be required to use test scores to earn a high school diploma.
One change that could affect testing in schools will come when the federal government re-authorizes the law that governs public education, known colloquially as "The No Child Left Behind Act." The law is up for a re-write, but Congress has yet to take it up.
It would also be interesting to see how the state and individual district would respond if a significant number of parents sought testing opt-outs for their children.
Another question is whether students should take standardized tests. Critics see the testing as a waste of valuable classroom time, a bore for students and an unfair measure of student achievement. They also decry the inclusion of student scores in teacher evaluations.
Supporters point out that test results can provide important information, both about individual students, and about school curriculum.
My best guess is that the debate about testing is here to stay.