After widespread protest, schools can be sanctioned for opt-out figures

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MaryEllen Elia. (AASA Alexandria, VA)
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ALBANY— Individual schools could lose funding if large numbers of students opt out of state standardized tests in April, state education commissioner MaryEllen Elia said on Wednesday.

Of the 1.1 million students eligible to take state exams in math and English language arts exams this year, nearly 20 percent, or 200,000 students, opted out.

The state Education Department is in conversations with the U.S. Department of Education working on a plan regarding possible sanctions for districts with high opt-out rates, Elia said.

In the conference call with reporters, Elia said the sanctions weren’t clearly defined and could simply consist of a phone call to superintendents asking what happened and what they plan to do differently next year. But it's also possible that federal Title I funds will be withheld, she said.

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The standardized tests, Elia said, are "part of a bigger plan to let us know how we’re doing and where we’re going and without that data, we’re certainly at a disadvantage in knowing how those schools and those districts performed." Since 2013, state standardized tests have been linked to the Common Core. Scores statewide have dipped since then, and the anti-test movement has gained traction.

Elia did not elaborate on what the large opt-out numbers mean for schools labeled as “struggling” or “persistently struggling." These schools rely on the test scores to show whether or not they’ve made progress. She said her department is analyzing the data.

The majority of students who boycotted the tests were white, from a low or average needs district, and were slightly more likely to have been failed in 2014, according to the state.

State Board of Regents chancellor Merryl Tisch said in April that if it were up to her, she wouldn’t withhold funds. “I can't imagine that anyone has any interest in withholding Title I funds from school kids in New York State,” she said. “To me, it just doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. I understand carrot-and-stick, but I also understand inflaming an already tense situation.”

New York State United Teachers denounced the test scores in a Wednesday statement, calling them “meaningless” as measures of teacher effectiveness, especially given the large number of students who opted-out.

"When parents make a decision to refuse to have their children sit for state tests that are unfair, invalid and inappropriate as measures of teaching and learning, the state and federal governments must respect that choice," NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn said. "Punishing school districts for a parents' decision — one they have every right to make — would be a terrible wrong."

Stephen Sigmund, executive director of High Achievement New York, a pro-Common Core coalition of business and education reform groups, said he’s hopeful the schools aren’t penalized, but “those encouraging opt out have to know that’s a real risk and they would be responsible for bringing those penalties.”

The large number of students who opted-out sends a clear message to Governor Andrew Cuomo, said Jasmine Gripper, legislative coordinator for the Alliance for Quality Education, a labor-backed group that advocates for increased school funding and a more equitable distribution of aid.

“Parents are fed up and parents wanted to say that ‘My child is more than a test score,’” Gripper said.

Gripper said her organization is not afraid of the potential repercussions for funding. “I think that’s more of a myth than a reality,” she said, adding that federal funding is primarily for higher-needs districts where fewer students opted out. “I really think that’s a lot of hype from the state Education Department and not a reality.”

In spite of the large number of students who refused to take the test, Elia said she still backs Common Core.

“I’m committed to higher standards,” Elia said. “We really need to make sure that the students that walk away with a diploma in this state are ready to be successful and that we’ve given them the tools that they need.”