ALBANY – Federal education officials are hinting that New York public schools with high opt-out rates during this week’s standardized tests could face financial sanctions.
But the state’s top education official dismissed the possible loss of any funding as imprudent.
“I would say to everyone who wants to punish the school districts: hold them to standards, set high expectations, hold them accountable, but punishing them? Really, are you kidding me?” said Board of Regents Chancellor Meryl Tisch.
“I am totally opposed to penalizing our students for a fight that the grown-ups are having,” Tisch said in an interview with The Buffalo News on Wednesday, a day after tens of thousands of parents across New York kept their children from participating in English and language arts standardized tests in the third through eighth grades.
For now, the threats coming from Washington are vague, at least publicly.
But one thing is certain: Washington and Albany were clearly caught off guard by the high levels of students not taking the tests – up to 70 percent or more in some districts.
The anti-Common Core message sent by parents and teachers was met Wednesday with a press release, and no answers to specific questions, from the U.S. Department of Education. The agency noted that states are required to conduct the annual standardized assessments to determine the level at which students are, or are not, learning. Officials provided letters recently dispatched to Alaska and New Jersey reminding officials there of the sanctions that the states could either face themselves or should possibly impose on local schools for high testing opt-out rates.
“The department has not had to withhold money – yet – over this requirement because states have either complied or have appropriately sanctioned schools or districts that assessed less than 95 percent of students,” said Dorie Nolt, spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education.
The federal government requires that at least 95 percent of a district’s students participate in the annual assessments. On Tuesday, some individual schools in New York had as many as 90 percent of students not taking the exams. The West Seneca district, with 70 percent of students opting out, had the highest figure reported in Western New York.
Jonathan Berman, a state Education Department spokesman, said the federal government has “made clear” to states that education agencies are expected to “consider” sanctions against districts that fail to meet the 95 percent threshold.
But Tisch said New York has been imploring Washington to make changes to the Common Core standards that would, for instance, give the state leeway in how testing is done for students with disabilities and those who are English-language learners. Federal officials have ignored the requests for two years, she said.
“Quite frankly, the federal government could have helped us. I am deeply disappointed they have let New York down,” she said.
The federal government’s support for public education in New York is a small piece of the pie. About 40 percent of the average school district’s support comes from Albany, 56 percent comes from local taxpayers and 4 percent from Washington.
But some federal aid, such as the Title I program, is essential to many lower-income school districts to help their students, and any cuts – or mandates on how funding is spent as a sanction for high opt-out rates – would be met with sharp push-backs by districts. Buffalo, for instance, this year is getting at least $25 million in federal Title I money, according to state education statistics.
In a recent legal notice sent to school board members across the state, the New York State School Boards Association warned about Washington’s 95 percent rule for the annual assessments, and that those failing to attain that level “can subject states and school districts to sanctions,” including loss of Title I money and funding for programs such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
Bob Lowry, deputy executive director at the New York State Council of School Superintendents, said New York is in uncertain waters given the unexpected high opt-out rates being seen this week.
“It’s not like there’s a hard-and-fast rule … It’s not like if X happens then Y is the penalty. We just don’t know,” Lowry said .“I think the U.S. Department of Education is still groping with this and there’s an appreciation that you don’t want to hurt kids.”
Officials in many school districts are worried the opt-out movement, led by parents and the state teachers union, could be costly. But they also are looking to last year, when 60,000 children opted out of the tests and there were no financial sanctions from Washington or Albany.
This week’s opt-out numbers are clearly far higher than 2014, though no organization or agency has done a precise statewide survey yet. Last year, though, 9.2 percent of Long Island students and 5.5 percent of Western New York students opted out, which at region-wide levels were below the federal 95 percent requirements.
Lowry said money the state provides to schools should not be affected unless, for instance, a district willfully refuses to administer the tests. Specific federal rules that once set precise sanctions if certain benchmarks were not hit have been dropped.
“No one has been through this, so we don’t know exactly how it will sort out,” he said.
Common Core critics and locals of the New York State United Teachers union have been saying the past two days that the opt-out rates show that parental concerns about teaching-to-the-test learning in New York will have to be addressed.
Tisch was clearly frustrated with the week’s opt-out push, which she said was “ginned up” by telephone robo-calls by NYSUT trying to pump up the opt-out numbers. Tisch said “what we have here is a labor dispute” between NYSUT and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo over the governor’s recent successful push to bolster the teacher job performance evaluation system and to make it harder for teachers to attain tenure.
Tisch said she expects the rhetoric in the days ahead to shift from opt-out to criticism that claims that this week’s tests are not reliable or viable.
“How that helps kids in school buildings or teachers, I don’t know,” she said. “The truth is it’s been well over a year since I’ve had someone talk to me about instruction and curriculum. Everyone has talked to me about evaluations. It has politicized a very sacred institution that should be held harmless to politics.”
Tisch said she ran her own quiet, informal survey, asking people she knows to talk to principals and superintendents to see if they were pushing the opt-out movement. To a person, she said, none were. “So I think to the best of what we know, superintendents and principals are caught in the middle of this groundswell, which I think is the direct result of a lot of misinformation and angry rhetoric,” she said.
During the recent state budget adoption process, the Regents were tasked with helping to devise new state-controlled teacher evaluation standards. The chancellor said that upcoming work will provide a chance to try to resolve the controversies over the opt-out movement and teacher evaluations.
Tisch acknowledged the state made mistakes in failing to reach out to parents over the Common Core tests.
“One of the critical errors that we made in the beginning was not explaining to parents in a very direct conversation why the new testing was important, why scores would go down, why these scores are only aspirational, why new testing procedures could ultimately benefit instruction practice in making children more college and career-ready,” she said.