Students opting out of state testing filled the cafeteria at West Elementary in West Seneca in April. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Area schools were at the epicenter of the opt-out movement for standardized tests earlier this year, and this is the week when districts will learn what effect the large number of students refusing to take the tests had on overall test results.

When the state releases the standardized test scores later this week, some districts will see whether the opt-out students affected the overall proficiency of their students. And some districts could face repercussions, including redirection of federal money, if too many students refused to take the standardized test and thus failed to meet federal requirements.

No school district in New York has ever faced financial sanctions because too few students took the state tests, and local educators are still not sure how the state will handle the opt-outs this year. And because many wealthier suburban districts get relatively little federal money, that sanction – even if imposed – might have little impact.

That’s why some educators believe the state will have to respond to what has swelled from a few hundred families refusing the test to a massive political movement that some estimate involves 200,000 students statewide, along with the influential teachers union.

“Opt-out is potentially a political movement that needs to be reckoned with,” said Donald A. Ogilvie, a former superintendent in Buffalo and Erie 1 BOCES. “As the numbers grow, it adds to the movement.”

Added to the mix is a new state education commissioner, who already has made it clear she sees the opt-out movement as a problem and intends to work with districts to put an end to it.

Whether that will come with mere persuasion, or a hammer, is yet to be seen.

“We have an issue we have to address,” Commissioner MaryEllen Elia told educators in Sweet Home last month. “The opt-out issue is very problematic.”

New York State has been giving standardized tests to students for years with little push back from parents and teachers. That was partially because the harshest penalties tied to the tests were largely felt by urban school systems receiving significant amounts of federal anti-poverty money the government could use as leverage to force sanctions. Most suburban school districts where students generally fared well had little to say about the annual testing.

That dynamic changed when state and federal leaders started pushing to use those standardized test scores as a factor in teacher evaluations.

That push came at the same time New York introduced the Common Core Learning Standards and accompanying tests, which are significantly tougher. Many traditionally high-performing school districts saw their performance dip.

The first year the test was given, the percentage of students statewide deemed proficient in reading fell from 55 percent to 31 percent. In math it dropped from 65 percent to 31 percent.

That prompted an outpouring of criticism, with opponents arguing the new tests were not developmentally appropriate for students at certain ages and those with disabilities. They also argued that the new standards forced schools to spend more time preparing for, administering and grading tests, rather than on creative instruction.

And, in many cases, parents and teachers complained that districts did not adequately prepare for the roll-out by properly training those in the classroom and informing families.

“New York State got itself in a fix because the implementation of the Common Core went along with those very high-stakes teacher evaluations,” said Maria Ferguson, executive director of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based think tank. “You don’t have to know much about human psychology to predict what happened. That generated some good kindling to light a flame on.”

Growing movement

Parents increasingly refused to allow their children to take the tests, a movement that swelled earlier this year when Karen Magee, president of New York State United Teachers, issued a robocall urging parents across the state to opt out.

The state has yet to release official numbers, but a parent group behind the opt-out movement estimates that 200,000 students refused to take this year’s test – a dramatic increase from 60,000 who opted out last year. The figure was pulled together by parents and teachers reporting from individual schools.

“Just from being involved in many groups that promote this in discussions, parents are well-informed in New York State,” said Chris Cerrone, an anti-testing advocate who helped lead a regional opt-out movement. “They realize how testing drives instruction and the curriculum.”

Thanks to efforts like Cerrone’s, school districts in Western New York had some of the highest opt-out numbers in the state. Among the districts with the most opt-outs was West Seneca, where two-thirds of the students didn’t take the math test and about 70 percent opted out of reading.

The Kenmore-Tonawanda School Board considered not administering the test at all, but state leaders threatened to remove them from office if the test was not given. Even then, about 40 percent of Ken-Ton students opted out of the reading exam and 44 percent refused the math test. As a result, none of the schools in Kenmore-Tonawanda met the federal participation requirement.

Those behind the opt-out movement hope the high numbers will undermine the validity of the tests, making it unfair for the state to use them to evaluate teachers or rank schools.

Some educators, however, fear the high number of refusals will carry repercussions since they put districts out of compliance with federal law that requires not only that states administer tests to students in third through eighth grades, but that 95 percent of students take them.

“There will be quite a large risk for us, depending on what the state formula is,” said Dawn Mirand, superintendent in Kenmore-Tonawanda, referring to whether the state gives districts flexibility in determining participation rates. “We really don’t know what will happen. That’s an unknown at this point.”

It is also not entirely clear how the opt-outs will affect schools’ overall academic results.

Federal law mandates that schools not meeting the participation or academic goals set aside 20 percent of their federal dollars and come up with an improvement plan. Last year, the high number of opt-outs put 18 out of 38 school districts in Erie Niagara out of compliance with the student participation part of the law.

For some districts, however, that might not amount to much. For example, West Seneca receives just $1 million in federal anti-poverty funds, so the 20 percent would amount to $200,000 out of an $112.5 million budget.

As the federal government has increasingly used funding to influence education policy, some states and districts have opted to refuse the money. In 2013, Williamsville Superintendent Scott G. Martzloff and West Seneca’s Mark Crawford were both willing to sacrifice federal Race to the Top funding and refused a state directive to implement a new data system that required them to turn student information over to a private contractor.

In response to the increase in opt-outs, the state has come up with new formulas to minimize the impact on schools – and protect the legitimacy of the tests. That includes using an average participation based on several years of data. It has also started publicly reporting results based only on students who took the test over multiple years.

But as the number of opt outs grows, results based on those formulas carry less meaning.

No one expects the opt-out movement to fizzle out on its own; if anything, it could morph into a larger political effort to push back against various other reforms taking place in the state’s school systems.

“Once organized, vocal groups will incorporate additional issues that will make them into an even broader and louder voice,” Ogilvie said.

“On the opposite side you’ve got the governor and the Regents who will continue to say ‘Who can be against high expectations? Who can be against measuring progress? Who can be against the need for change?’ Those are the lines that have been drawn.”

Open options

State officials have said little about how they will respond to this year’s high number of opt-outs, previously pointing to the repercussions outlined in federal law that require the state to impose sanctions.

What’s not clear, however, is whether Elia will use her power as commissioner to come up with sanctions other than the redirection of funding for districts that find themselves out of compliance in the law.

In meetings with parents and educators in Sweet Home, she suggested that she will first take a more persuasive approach, communicating the purpose and value of the tests to teachers, and recruiting them to get the message out to parents.

She took a similar approach when she was superintendent of the Hillsborough County schools in Florida, hosting a series of community forums prior to the implementation of the Common Core.

“We have to get to the point that people are accepting,” she said.

She also mentioned the possibility of repercussions.

“The law exists so that there could be ramifications,” Elia said.

email: tlankes@buffnews.com

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