Update: Oregon Gov. Kate Brown signed House Bill 2655 Tuesday, allowing parents to more easily opt out of state testing under the Common Core curriculum.

She said the bill may open the door for more opt-outs, but it will be the job of teachers to explain the tests’ benefits.

“Educators must engage with parents about the value of assessment and the potential consequences if parents opt out and student participation diminishes,” Brown said in a statement after signing the bill. “We cannot afford to risk losing federal dollars, especially for students who have been traditionally underserved.”

After Brown signed the legislation, officials at the U.S. Department of Education issued a statement saying that they haven’t taken any steps against Oregon, but will be watching closely to ensure the state meets its testing obligations.

“Assessing all students is both a legal requirement and a civil rights issue. We are confident that Oregon’s leaders understand their responsibility to ensure all students are assessed annually,” said Dorie Nolt, press secretary for the Education Department. “And we will continue to look to them to take the appropriate steps on behalf of all kids in the state.”

Oregon lawmakers approved an education bill June 11 that could set up a fight with the federal government.

The bill allows parents to more easily opt children out of state testing; it requires schools to publicize those rights; and it would amend ratings for schools with low test participation.  

But Gov. Kate Brown got a call from Education Secretary Arne Duncan recently and an official letter from Assistant Secretary of Education Deborah Delisle warned federal funds could be in jeopardy.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

“The text of the Oregon bill currently under consideration, proactively encouraging parents to opt students out of assessments and failing to hold districts and schools accountable if they fall below 95% participation, increases the likelihood that Oregon will not meet its obligations under the law and incur enforcement action,” Delisle said in an email in late May.

The feds have told state officials that the bill would create the most permissive opt-out policy in the country.

However, Oregon Sen. Arnie Roblan, D-Coos Bay, said parents won’t necessarily opt out.  

“If we have conversations with our parents and our students about the importance of having a comparable test, most parents will decide that they want to take that test,” Roblan said.  

Roblan’s fellow Democrat, Sen. Rod Monroe, D-Portland, argued the bill risks millions in federal funds for low-income schools.

Lincoln is downtown Portland's high school, with a student body of more than 1600 students.

Lincoln is downtown Portland’s high school, with a student body of more than 1600 students.

Rob Manning

Monroe argued it was schools with wealthier students — like Lincoln and Lake Oswego high schools — that have high test refusal rates, and schools with lower income students that could lose money.

“Are you willing to take the risk of losing that kind of money, to help our poor students?”  Monroe asked from the Senate floor.

But another Portland senator, Chip Shields, argued there was little risk. Shields made a political point, saying the Obama administration would not pull funding from Oregon, when top Democrats in the state — such as Sen. Ron Wyden, Rep. Earl Blumenauer and Rep. Suzanne Bonamici — have “had the President’s back.”

Bend Republican Sen. Tim Knopp was also ready to plow ahead and pass the bill, calling the federal government’s threat a potential infringement of “state’s rights.”

Some Portland teachers are wearing "opt-out" buttons to spur conversations with students about standardized tests.

Some Portland teachers are wearing “opt-out” buttons to spur conversations with students about standardized tests.

Courtesy of Portland Association of Teachers

Conversely, Beaverton Sen. Mark Hass argued against the bill, saying making it easier to opt out of the new Smarter Balanced exams sends the wrong message to students: That it’s OK to avoid something difficult.

The bill passed the Oregon Senate, 24-6, with four Democrats and two Republicans voting against it.

HB 2655 is now headed to Brown. A spokesperson says she’ll review the bill once it reaches her desk.