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April 26, 2014

Education leaders considering more flexibility in test 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 had already 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 a state 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.

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