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Parents say ‘opting out’ unfairly keeps BPS kids out of City Honors, Olmsted

A week before state assessments are to be administered to Buffalo Public Schools students, a parent-teacher group says it is unfair to count the exams in the admissions formula at two of the most sought-after criteria-based schools – City Honors and Frederick Law Olmsted 156 – because district students who “opt out” of the tests get penalized.

The vast majority of Buffalo’s private and Catholic schools administer the state exams. Still, the group says the district’s policy puts public students at a disadvantage when competing for spots in City Honors and Olmsted 156 with students from the minority of Catholic and private schools that do not administer the tests.

Leaders from the Buffalo Parent-Teacher Organization want the state assessments eliminated from the admissions formula altogether, saying the district needs to provide an alternative.

“The current admissions system grants privileges to one group of students that it does not afford to others. The system favors students from private schools that do not administer state exams and punishes students whose parents opt their children out of those tests,” said parent James Cercone, an assistant college professor, explaining how his child was affected.

BPTO President Larry Scott said the organization knows of at least four parents representing seven students who were similarly impacted, but it’s likely that many more students may have been denied seats in the premier schools without their parents even realizing it. According to state data, about 9 percent of district students opted out of state exams last year.

“There could be many more parents who received denials, but they wouldn’t know why unless they made a direct request to the school for their child’s scoring profile,” said Scott.

BPTO parents like Cercone will raise the issue during Wednesday’s School Board meeting.

Asked about the parents’ complaint, a spokeswoman said Tuesday that the district administrator who oversees the admissions policies and has worked directly with the federal government to resolve a civil rights complaint over those policies was out of the country and could not immediately be reached to comment.

“The district sees the assessments as an important diagnostic tool for measuring students’ growth, and we urge all parents to encourage their children to take the test,” the district added in a prepared statement.

City Honors and Olmsted 156 are the district’s only criteria-based schools that still count state assessments as part of admissions, Scott said. The state assessments count for 29 percent of the admissions formula at City Honors and 45 percent at Olmsted 156, according to the BPTO.

The problem, critics say, is that the lack of a state assessment score is weighted differently depending on whether a student opts out or attends a school where the exam is not given.

For example, if admission to City Honors and Olmsted 156 were based on 10 different criteria, including state assessments, and each section was worth 10 percent of the final score, district students who opt out would get a zero for state assessment, meaning the most they could score would be 90.

On the other hand, students from some private and Catholic schools – like Elmwood Franklin and Park School, where the state assessments are not administered – could score a 9 out of 9 for 100 percent because the state assessments were not available to them.

Cercone and other critics say that’s not fair.

During the 2014-15 school year, the family had one child enrolled at City Honors and another at Bennett Park Montessori, and Cercone and his wife opted their children out of state assessments in April 2015.

Then last fall, at the start of the admissions process at the criteria-based schools, the younger child applied to City Honors and Olmsted 156, but the metrics included scores from last spring’s state assessments, when both students had opted out. The younger child received a zero for the state assessments, even though the family had been under the impression the child would not be penalized for opting out. That’s primarily because a letter from then-Superintendent Donald Ogilvie never made it clear that if students did not take the state assessments, they had no chance of getting into City Honors and Olmsted 156, Cercone said.

That March 2015 letter says in part “school districts may not solely or primarily rely upon, but may include, state assessments as one of the various measures used to determine admissions into schools ... If a state assessment score does not exist for a student, the lack of this assigned value, while not disqualifying the students, will impact the student’s admissions profile.”

Cercone said “the larger concern arose when we found out” that students from schools that did not administer the state assessments were rated differently.

“There were affordances made for them. That’s the discrepancy,” Cercone said.

“As parents, why should we endorse testing that the state deems ineffective on evaluating our children? Our criteria-based schools should be ashamed to use these tests for admissions to their schools,” said Keith Jones, another parent impacted by the admissions policies.

Scott said parents were told that in place of state assessments, the district would accept alternative assessments from schools like Elmwood Franklin and Park School – where the state assessments are not administered. But apparently that has not happened, according to a parent on BPTO’s executive board whose child was accepted into City Honors from Elmwood Franklin.

“The Park School does administer alternative assessments, but the district has never requested this additional information. We don’t have any report that there is an alternative assessment being used,” Scott said.

The head of Park School, Chris Lauricella, was not available Tuesday for comment.

It seems City Honors’ admissions rules counted the cognitive assessment score in place of the state assessment on the admissions policy for students from private and Catholic schools that did not administer the state assessment, according to the BPTO board member.