Education commish creating ‘tool kit’ to curb testing opt-outs

ALBANY, N.Y. (NEWS10) — The state’s new education commissioner is looking to curb the growing opt-outs in New York State for next spring.

In New York, 20 percent of students opted out of state tests last spring, which is quadruple the amount in 2014. A 2016 test refusal letter is already circulating.

Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia is ruling out financial sanctions for schools that do not have 95 percent participation or more on state tests.

Instead, the state education department is putting together the necessary resources to help superintendents inform parents about the tests and to make sure educators are not encouraging student opt-outs.

Elia wrote the following statement:

“Our goal is to reduce opt outs from federally required assessments by educating parents and teachers about higher learning standards and the important information annual testing provides. Financial sanctions to schools with low participation are not a solution and Chancellor Tisch made that clear back in April. I agree with her and with the USDE.

Superintendents, administrators and educators all need to have a clear message that expresses the necessity and importance of the assessments.  I am meeting with superintendents across the state to get their guidance in how to make sure that happens.

Annual testing has always been a part of education and simply cannot be ignored.  We’re putting together resources to help superintendents inform parents about the assessments. We’re asking districts that had low opt out rates to pull together best practices. 

Together we can find ways to meet the challenges of helping our students meet the higher standards we’ve set for them.  Opting out is not the answer.”

Some superintendents say curbing the opt-out movement is all about finding a balance between quality of tests and accountability.

“I think the commissioner is sound in saying as superintendents we need to be the champion of this cause, regardless of what our personal biases might be,” Shenendehowa Central Schools Superintendent Dr. Oliver Robinson said. “That is our legal obligation and that’s the oath we take as school officials.”

But is that enough?

Some superintendents say the opt-out movement has a lot to do with mistrust.

“When parents understand the child’s test results are being used to help the child, they’re very trusting of that,” Schenectady City Schools Superintendent Larry Spring said. “We don’t have opt-out issues.”

Among Elia’s resources is legal information. But that could open a can of worms.

“That’s just going to being our more voices, which means more opt-outs next year, and we’re just going to be spinning our wheels again,” Assemblyman Jim Tedisco said.

Dr. Robinson agrees the process needs to be realigned. But he urges caution to not send students home with the wrong message.

“At the end of the day, what we don’t want to do is send a message to our students that when things are challenging, you can opt out of it,” he said.

Dr. Robinson is among many parents and educators hoping Elia’s adjustments to the process include tweaks to the tests themselves.

Educators want to see the material align with what students are learning in classrooms and find a balance on teacher evaluations.

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