Opt-out angst continues over test participation rules

Additional comments, changes to be considered before rules are adopted

Categories: News, Schenectady County

Parents who refuse to allow their children to take annual state tests continued to cause angst for state officials Monday, as a handful of Regents resisted a new accountability plan they had previously supported.

Members of the Board of Regents raised a litany of concerns with the rules state Education Department staff proposed as part of the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act. The rules were adopted by the Regents last year and were approved by the U.S. Department of Education in January.

Concerns included the plan’s complexity, confusion over how to define “civic readiness,” and the way different types of students are factored into a school’s performance score.

Particularly sticky questions were raised over what will be required of schools and districts that fail to boost participation on annual state math and English Language Arts exams to at least 95 percent.

Preliminary reports from school districts this spring suggest opt-out rates in Capital Region schools continued to decline over the past three years, but even with the upward trend in participation, hardly any area districts registered 95 percent participation on the state tests.

Resistance to the rules appeared to boil down to a fundamental contradiction in the state’s plan: State officials say they support a family’s right to opt out of the tests, but schools that fail to garner 95 percent participation will be required to submit to a lengthy process aimed at finding ways to improve participation. If a school doesn’t find ways to improve participation over multiple years, state officials will step in and offer solutions.

“On the one hand, ESSA (federal law) says, ‘Parents, you make the choice about the tests,’ and that’s an incredible signal,” said Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa during Monday’s meeting. “At the same time, they signal the second part … if you fail to meet the 95 percent, the state has to act like the (bad) cop.”

While state officials and some of the Regents painted the rules as taking into account parent and educator concerns with the annual tests while still meeting federal requirements, one of the state’s leading teachers unions is arguing state officials don’t have to move forward with their plan – which the union argues stigmatizes parents and schools for opting out.

“What they are doing right now is penalizing and stigmatizing parents who make this decision, and we simply do not agree with that,” said Jolene DiBrango, executive vice president of New York State United Teachers.

In the state’s ESSA plan, which takes effect July 1, schools and districts that do not reach 95 percent participation on the state tests for students in third- through eighth-grade will be required to analyze why more students aren’t participating and adopt plans for boosting participation. Schools with the lowest participation rates in the state will be required to submit those plans to state officials. If schools and district continue to struggle to meet the 95 percent target, they will be required to continue adjusting and submitting plans to improve participation. Eventually, state officials can step in and offer ways for districts to improve participation.

During more than two hours of discussion of the new rules at Monday’s meeting, multiple members of the board pressed Education Department officials on whether the rules could be changed. There were also calls for better communication with parents about how and why the annual tests are used by educators. Some members even suggested they were prepared to reject the regulations for a plan they had already approved.

During the discussion, Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia reminded the Regents that the proposed regulations were created to implement a plan they had already adopted.

“I would urge all of you to go through this document again and feel good about it,” Elia said. “We can say we don’t like it now, but remember, you all have been part of the changes for a long time.”

Ultimately, the Regents adopted the regulations, with three abstentions and a promise from Rosa that officials would continue to accept public comments on the ESSA rules until Aug. 19 and will consider more changes before a final vote on the rules in September.

“I feel the federal requirement is setting us up to write a plan for failure,” said Regent Beverly Oudekirk, who represents the Capital Region and North Country and abstained on Monday’s vote regarding the regulations.

Department staff pressed for approval of the regulations on an emergency basis on Monday, so the rules for the new accountability system could be in place in time for the start of next school year. 

Even some of the regents who voted for the regulations said they expected to see changes ahead of another vote in September.

“We still have many issues; we still have a lot of questions,” Rosa said.

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