Saugerties superintendent: Opting out of tests could cost money, local control



If more parents have their children opt out of standardized testing, the Saugerties School District could face greater state control and financial difficulties, warned Superintendent Seth Turner in a letter posted to the district’s website on Monday titled “Think Test Refusal Doesn’t Harm Anything?”.

Turner writes that 95 percent of students must participate in the grades 3-8 English and math tests for the district to make “adequate yearly progress” and remain “in good standing” according the state. If a district fails to maintain adequate yearly progress, it becomes subject to greater state oversight.

“A series of invasive and costly reforms would be the consequence, and eventually resources would be devoted to meeting State guidelines, rather than having local control,” wrote Turner (see bottom paragraph).


The oversight is mostly in the form of requiring various reform plans to be approved by the state, while the costs could come in the form of reallocation of certain funding and potentially higher transportation costs if students choose to attend schools on the other side of town, according to Turner.

He said misinformation is being spread suggesting there are no consequences to opting out of tests.

“Some parents and their children are genuine in their concern, yet there are also special interest groups that have targeted school officials, and hurled insults to anyone who objects to their approach. By sharing misinformation on social media, ‘water cooler attorneys’ have promoted what they deem ‘Opt out’ with claims there will be no consequences for school districts if students refuse the tests.”

While the district hasn’t released information on how many students opted out in previous years, Turner’s letter suggests the district believes the number will increase.

“My analysis is that if left unchecked, our district has the possibility of beginning a trend of not meeting participation standards … for New York State.”

The consequences would not apply if a school failed to meet the 95 percent threshold in just one year. State law says a school or district is designated for a “local assistance plan” if it demonstrates a pattern of failing to meet adequate yearly progress in any one of a number of areas. Most elements of greater state control Turner warned of kick in only after a school or district remains on a local assistance plan for three years in a particular area, at which point it becomes a “focus” school or district. A further designation involving still more state control is “priority” school or district.


A different reading

Local activists, while not disagreeing that the future could conceivably bring consequences, point out that so far no district has suffered due to opting out of the controversial testing; state designation has only been exercised due to low test scores and graduation rates. Common Core’s implementation has been revised repeatedly and opt-outs are increasing state-wide. They believe it is unlikely that the state would apply the same process it has used for schools who have failed academically in the years ahead due to opt outs, which are the choice of parents and not the district’s fault, especially when the 95 percent cutoff was created for an entirely different reason — to prevent schools from gaming the tests by not giving them to those expected to perform poorly.

Bianca Tanis of New York State Allies for Public Education (NYSAPE) said no new district has been designated a focus district since the state received a waiver from No Child Left Behind in 2012. As for being hit with a local assistance plan, “there are zero monetary consequences,” she said. In this case, the school may have to put together a plan to encourage parents to have their children take the tests, which would then be evaluated by the state. So while it is possible under the current rules that eventually a school could be designated a focus school due to test participation, it would not be for some years (something Turner’s letter doesn’t dispute).

Anna Shah, also of NYSAPE, pointed out that though the district is in good standing, the junior high school is officially on a local assistance plan already due to test scores. Shah disagreed with Turner’s argument that students must take the tests to maintain local control of school districts, saying just the opposite — that the only way to assert local control, in this case, is not to participate. She said Turner’s suggestion to take protests to Albany would not be effective because Albany is corrupt.

Both Tanis and Shah will speak at a forum on these and other education issues Wednesday, March 25 at 7 p.m. at the Senior Center, 207 Market St.

In Saugerties, inseparable from the issue of opting out is the district’s policy for the students who do so. Dubbed “sit and stare” by critics, it requires students to remain seated at a desk with the rest of the class for the duration of the tests. (Other districts allow students to leave the room and read a book, for example.)

Turner has spoken out in the past about the lack of direction from Albany regarding how to handle such situations. He said he felt former Education Commissioner John King was “vague” when questioned about how to proceed with students who opt out.

In the absence of a specific directive, Turner has said those districts that provide an alternate location or allow reading materials have “no legal authority to do so.” In his interpretation, Saugerties is following the law; other districts are breaking it.

To this point, Shah cites a website FAQ on Common Core by the School Administrators Association of New York State (SAANYS) that states, “[State Education Department] leadership agreed that what school districts should do when students opt out of state testing is a matter of local policy. There is no ‘requirement’ that students who opt out remain in the testing room with the other students who are taking the test.”

Read NYSAPE’s rebuttal letter released Monday evening.  


Turner’s list of possible consequences

  • Participation in the Diagnostic Tool for School and District Effectiveness (DTSDE) process, engage in an annual cycle of school review, and use those reviews as the basis for creating District Comprehensive Improvement Plans (DCIP) and School Comprehensive Education Plans (SCEP).
  • Require districts to offer Public School Choice to students in Title 1 Priority and Focus Schools.
  • Set aside an amount equal to five and fifteen percent of a district’s Title 1, Title 2A, and Title 3 funds to support improvement efforts of Priority and Focus Schools, and set aside an amount equal to one percent of Title 1 funds to promote parent engagement in Priority and Focus Schools.
  • Require Priority Schools to implement a whole school reform model, assess the capacity of school leadership to implement that model and take appropriate action based on that assessment.
  • Require Focus Districts and Priority and Focus Schools to make two years of progress and meet certain minimum performance standards in their second year of progress in order to be removed from accountability status.
  • Offer extended learning time to students in Priority Schools.
  • If the cost of offering Public School Choice and 200 hours of extended learning time to students in Priority Schools goes beyond the district’s set aside (of Title 1 money), the district must utilize other funds to meet these obligations.

Turner also said the elementary schools could be affected because the district would have to allow parents to choose which school to attend rather than assigning them a school based on where they live (the “neighborhood school” model). He said the transportation costs would be significant and questioned where the money would come from. He also said other districts used for examples of test refusal by advocates have a different model for elementary schools so they wouldn’t face the same consequences.