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April 25, 2014

Education leaders looking at adding more flexibility to testing exemptions

OKLAHOMA CITY — Following the latest kerfuffle over standardized assessments, the State Department of Education is reviewing its testing exemption policy to determine how to add more flexibility.

Joel Robison, state Superintendent Dr. Janet Barresi’s chief of staff, said even before the latest brouhaha erupted Wednesday, conversations already had started about the need for more flexibility. Currently, the only federal exemptions allowed are for emergency medical issues and for first-time English language learners. Department of Education spokeswoman Tricia Pemberton said the education department receives hundreds of calls a year querying about different scenarios that have to be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.

“I suspect that before next year’s testing window opens, there will be some flexibility added, and we will announce that. We just haven’t determined how we want to go about that, but it is needed,” Robison said.

The latest standardized assessment flare-up came as an Oklahoma Department of Education assessment coordinator denied a testing exemption to two Moyers Public Schools sixth-graders, who were left orphaned in a Sunday car crash that killed their parents, Rodney and Crystal Sutterfield, and two others. Moyers Superintendent Donna Dudley exempted the students anyway before Barresi personally intervened and issued a blanket exemption to both youth.

Robison said the employee’s initial decision, while wrong, “was based upon some fairly rigid federal guidelines on assessments.”

Robison said the exemption rule is complex. In Oklahoma, districts must test at least 95 percent of students or automatically lose a grade on the state’s A-F letter system. The federal government requires 90 percent of students be tested. In the state’s smallest districts, a handful of students could be the difference between compliance and failure.

But some saw the initial decision to deny the exemption as a lack of flexibility and compassion by the State Department of Education. It raised the ire of people across social media platforms and irked state legislators from the area.

“It’s imperative that we instead of using common core, we start using some common sense in where we make judgments on students in public schools today,” said Rep. Curtis McDaniel, D-Smithville, adding he was glad the exemption eventually was issued.

Ginger Tinney, executive director of Professional Oklahoma Educators, a statewide organization based out of Noble, said the latest incident was “ridiculous,” but happens “when you write such hard, fast rules.”

“If there are standards written, they need to be broad,” she said. “There’s always going to be something that’s going to happen that you never thought of. Things happen at the last minute that are extremely horrible, catastrophic.”

She believes ultimately, decisions about exemptions should be left to local administrators.

“They know who and who shouldn’t take a test. You’ve got to trust your local administrators to do the right thing,” Tinney said.

Wednesday marked the second issue in a week involving standardized testing in Oklahoma. On Monday, the state was forced to suspend online testing for the second year in a row after thousands of middle school students experienced disruptions due to a technical glitch.

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