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Study finds opt-out rates for state tests dip among low-income students

Many of New York's poorest children are saying yes to the state English and math assessments, while students in schools in wealthier districts are opting out in far larger numbers.

Those are the findings of a study by High Achievement New York, a coalition of business, urban and community groups that advocates for rigorous standards and against opting out of state assessments.

The group examined the percentage of students receiving free and reduced lunches with the opt-out rate for the 2017 standardized tests. It found that in the state's 50 largest school districts, those with the highest percentage of students getting free and reduced lunches had an average opt-out rate of 6 percent. In comparison, districts with the fewest number of free and reduced lunches had an average opt-out rate 10 times higher, at more than 65 percent.

In Buffalo, where 68 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced lunches, an average of 13.5 percent of students opted out of the ELA and math tests last year. In Niagara Falls, where 75 percent receive free and reduced lunches, 6 percent opted out of the tests.

Suburban West Seneca, where 37 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced lunches, had one of the higher opt-out rates in the state: 68 percent. In Williamsville, where 13 percent of the district population receives free and reduced lunches, the opt-out rate was 31 percent.

"You need the information that comes from those standardized tests that helps you know where you are at," said Sam Radford, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council of Buffalo and a member of High Achievement New York.

He said parents from lower-income communities have bought into the tests because they see how important measurements are to keep school leaders accountable. The numbers, he said, reflect the reality in urban communities.

Anti-test movement strong, despite opt-out numbers decreasing in WNY

Radford said the numbers in some instances may reflect life in a low-income family with so many pressing issues that opting in or out of tests is not on the radar.

"You also have parents in that circumstance that understand that opting out works against them," he said.

To say that lower-income families have other needs or don't know about opting out of tests is a "very paternalistic" argument, said Stephen Sigmund, executive director of High Achievement New York.

It is not accurate to conclude inner city parents aren't as well informed as suburban parents, he said, adding that "anybody who hasn't been living under a rock" knows testing is an issue.

Sigmund said parents in low-income communities knew for many years their children were not getting the same shot at quality education as others, but they were not able to quantify the gap. Full participation in the state assessments help show the full picture, and high opt-out rates are standing in the way of getting a full view of the educational landscape in the state, he said.

"The standardized test doesn’t affect ability to go from one grade to another grade, it's just information for you to tell you where your child is at," Radford said. "That’s really important information to have."

The statewide group recommends maintaining the comprehensiveness of the tests, including parents and stakeholders from all areas of the state in efforts to improve the assessments, engaging a greater number of teachers in writing test questions and getting results back to parents and teachers within two months of the test. The state also should encourage administrators to increase the number of students taking the test, the group said.

The ELA tests in third through eighth grades start in April.

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