Education commissioner begins plan to combat opt outs
ALBANY — Education commissioner MaryEllen Elia already has begun a battle to stop the rapidly growing opt-out movement before next year’s state tests, reaching out to department attorneys and meeting with superintendents, she told POLITICO New York.
“We’re trying to pull together a tool kit, if you will, to support superintendents in how we can communicate in a much more effective way to people across the state,” Elia said.
That kit will include legal information, which is why she has reached out to lawyers, Elia said.
“I want the superintendents to understand the reflections and law that they can use as an information piece when they talk to people in their community … It’s important for them to be able to say, ‘Listen, it’s the law.’”
Elia said she already has been meeting with superintendents across the state and plans to have a review of the standards to get even more feedback.
“As you get more people involved in the process, you have more people understanding what’s going on and why you have assessments,” she said. “There are a lot of people that don’t know what the Common Core is."
Educators are hoping that the toolkit includes further guidelines, including what is and what is not ethical for teachers or school administrators to say publicly about the exams, an issue that has become controversial across the state.
In April, 20 percent of the 1.1. million eligible third through eighth graders statewide refused to take the state math and English language arts exams.
Elia originally warned that the districts with the highest refusal rates could be penalized, potentially losing federal Title I money. Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch last week told the New York Times that there will not be federal sanctions, but did not rule out withholding money in the future if the state found district officials were encouraging opt outs.
When asked about possible sanctions, Elia said, “The bottom line is that at some point if it continues to rise, it’s against the law. Somebody could decide to do something. I can’t tell you what they’re going to do in Washington.”
At an Educators 4 Excellence event last week Elia said she believed opt out was “unreasonable,” and called it “unethical” for teachers to participate.
She told POLITICO New York that she anecdotally had heard teachers were calling homes and telling parents of low-scoring students to have their children refuse the tests.
“If this occurred, I don’t think that’s right,” Elia said. “I don’t have any proof that it occurred. I just don’t think that it’s appropriate for teachers to use their classroom and information about their kids to encourage people to opt out.”
The commissioner made those views clear when speaking with a group of education leaders in the Mohawk Valley last week, said Mark Vivacqua of the Herkimer-Fulton-Hamilton-Otsego BOCES. Those districts include Dolgeville schools, which had one of the highest opt-out rates in the state with 89 percent of its students refusing the English exam and 91 percent refusing math.
But the line of what is and is not ethical is unclear, Vivacqua said. For example, teachers shouldn’t tell their low-performing students not to take the tests because it would impact their evaluations. If, however, a teacher speaks out against education policy during a open forum, that’s less clear, he said. “The line is going to have to be drawn.”
Vivacqua hadn’t heard of any teachers in his districts telling students not to take the exams, but said some may have unwittingly stepped over the line.
New Hartford parents Jessica and Jamie McNair founded the advocacy group Opt Out CNY, but they also happen to be teachers, a line they’re very careful not to cross.
“Parents who are educators see what’s happening from a lot of different angles, but they’re also professionals that are capable of wearing two hats at the same time,” said Jessica McNair.
Elia said she understands that many teachers are also parents, so if they have their own children opt out, that’s different. “Parents, I do believe, have rights,” she said.
As for superintendents, their job is to follow state policy, but the state policy regarding opt outs was also unclear last year, Viviacqua said. “If there was some sort of uniform guideline on how to handle opting out, they could say ‘That’s what I’m following.’ Instead, it was left very nebulous.” The result was some superintendents faced much criticism over how they handled opt outs, he said.
New York Mills schools in Oneida County had a high opt-out rate, even though Superintendent Kathy Houghton supports the Common Core.
“People have already made up their minds on how they feel and they are talking to each other,” Houghton said. “It’s very difficult to turn that tide.”
The school board passed a resolution supporting the opposition to high-stakes testing.
“It’s a tight rope I’m walking,” Houghton said. “Parents are the most important person in a child’s life and they do make those decisions. We don’t have jurisdiction over the parent.”
Houghton said if the state were to come out with video clips or some sort of guidelines, she would certainly use them at information sessions.
Elia agreed that more needs to be done. “The state Education Department needs to support the educators that are out there, including the education leaders,” she said.
Elia said she plans to have the toolkit in place before the tests next April to give better guidance for superintendents, principals, teachers and parents.
When asked if she thinks opt out will continue to grow, Elia replied: “It’s incumbent upon us to get information and support out to those educators and leaders across New York … I think we have a lot of work to do in terms of communication and we have to do it a multiple levels.”
Some parents, like Jessica McNair, say they already are informed about Common Core and the opt-out movement should not be dismissed as a lack of information.
“I think she has a lot to learn about the parents in New York State,” McNair said. “We’re not going to back down until we see tests that are developmentally appropriate, and tests that are decoupled from the teacher evaluations.”
Opt Out CNY, which has 4,120 members, already has a 2015-16 refusal letter available to parents on its website — and some already have it signed and in their child’s book bags for the first day of school, McNair said.