Local school districts are grappling with how to respond to the New York State Education Department’s continued push to fight the opt-out movement against standardized testing, which encourages students in grades three through eight to avoid government-mandated standardized tests. Earlier this year, NYSED unveiled its plan to comply with federal testing regulations which, critics say, would unfairly punish schools and students.
Some of the possibilities being considered are severe — schools could be ordered to use federal Title I funding to lower the opt-out rates instead of other programs. Schools could also be closed or converted to charter schools under the changes.
Federal law requires schools to have a 95 percent participation rate in federally mandated math and English tests in grades three through eight. That figure has been closer to 80 percent in New York. The movement was in part due to a plan to use test scores to evaluate teachers. While the teacher evaluation link is presently on hold, schools in many districts are still coming in below the federal participation threshold. As a response, the state is considering an escalating run of penalties for schools testing fewer than 95 percent in each student subgroup.
The SED changes are expected to be voted on next month during a meeting of the Board of Regents. Following a contentious meeting on June 11, Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia claimed the weight given to students opting out of tests was being incorrectly interpreted. “The assertion that schools could face financial penalties for low participation rates is patently false,” Elia said in a prepared statement.
Ira Rosenblum, executive director of Education Trust-NY, wrote in a letter that the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), the statewide teachers’ union, was also misreading the impact a school’s opt-out rates would have on calculations determining their overall ranking. “NYSUT is refusing to take ‘yes’ for an answer,” wrote Rosenblum.
Among the groups fighting against the punitive changes is the activist group Alliance for Quality Education (AQE), which sent out an open call for parents to have their voices heard. “The New York State Education Department is seeking to punish schools where parents and students exercise their right to opt out,” wrote Jasmine Gripper, AQE’s legislative director and statewide education advocate. “We strongly encourage SED to remove this provision from the draft regulations and respect parents and students rights to opt out. Parents have the right to opt their children out of state tests and schools must inform parents of those rights.”
Locally, school districts have struggled with how to respond to the proposed changes at the state level. Kingston school board Trustee Suzanne Jordan expressed concern that opt-out numbers are giving a false impression of how well each school is doing in educating its students. “We have to understand that a ‘focus’ school is not necessarily defining the achievement at the school if we don’t have a true picture of students who are participating in the tests,” said Jordan at a school board meeting earlier this month. “I do support the parents who make that decision.”
Saugerties school board President Robert Thomann said this week that penalizing schools for students opting out of tests creates more problems than it solves. “It’s unfair,” Thomann said. “You don’t have any control over what parents choose to do with their kids as far as not having them participate in tests. If you’re penalizing them by taking away Title I money, you’re hurting those kids who benefit from Title I funds, programs that help them read, programs that would help them be successful in education.”
Thomann contended that NYSED’s approach to standardized testing would remain contentious and flawed as long as it didn’t take into account the reasons why the opt-out movement is still happening. “We’re not satisfied with the state’s response to its testing program,” he said, “When you have approximately 20 percent of parents statewide pulling out of the testing, I think you need to listen to what people in the school system are saying. From the beginning, Commissioner Elia has put the burden on school districts to try cheerleading families into participating. But we don’t really have any incentive to do that.”
New Paltz Deputy Superintendent Michelle Martoni this week said the state hasn’t gone far enough in ensuring standardized tests weren’t being used in teacher evaluations. “In our district, most of the opt-out movement occurred because these tests were coupled with teacher evaluations, and the math behind that coupling was flimsy,” said Martoni. “When the state had the opportunity to decouple the tests, they did not. On the one hand they want school districts to encourage more students to take a test, but on the other hand they’re not doing the very thing that would possibly have people think that if it’s not as high-stakes as a teacher evaluation maybe we would consider it. They’ve kind of put us between a rock and a hard place.”
Martoni added that the punitive nature of the NYSED plan goes beyond the potential loss of Title I funding in schools where the money is most needed. It also pulls focus away from where it’s most needed, the students, she said.
“I’m still wrapping my head around it,” Martoni said. “If you are below a 95 percent participation rate, you will immediately have to do a corrective action plan. In our district, our board is not punitive to us in terms of students opting out. To do that plan is going to take a lot of time for a lot of people away from things where we could be focusing on teaching and learning. It’s bureaucracy and paperwork.”