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As state revamps teacher evaluations, movement to boycott tests grows

Last year, an estimated 60,000 students refused to take state math and reading tests across the state. Organizers of an anti-testing movement hope to get 250,000 to opt out of the tests this month.

They got high-placed helped Monday when the president of the statewide teachers union urged parents to direct their children to refuse to take the assessments.

So what happens if a critical mass of students do boycott the tests?

It depends on who you ask.

• Parents coordinating the “opt out” movement hope it will pressure the state to eventually roll back the use of the tests in evaluating teachers and ranking schools.

• State education officials say schools where large numbers of students opt out could risk financial sanctions under federal law, and that those schools will lose out on student data used to measure academic progress.

• A review of federal education regulations by New York State United Teachers found sanctions against schools would be mainly limited to more state oversight, a requirement to develop an improvement plan and the re-allocation of some federal funds.

The reality on the ground for school districts is unsettled.

No school district in the state has faced financial sanctions because too few students took the state assessments, the state Education Department confirmed.

School administrators, meanwhile, have been left to wonder what it means if large numbers of their students opt out of the exams.

“The ramifications have not clearly been communicated to districts of high refusal rates,” said James Przepasniak, superintendent of Lake Shore Central School District, which last year did not meet the federal requirements for student test participation because of the number of children who refused the math and English assessments given to third- through eighth-graders.

Like other Western New York districts where large numbers of parents directed their children not to take the exams last year, Lake Shore has not received any notification that its status has changed because of its test participation rates.

Simmering behind plans for a new teacher evaluation system included in the state budget is a growing testing protest movement aimed at getting enough children to refuse the tests so that they can’t easily be used to rank teachers and schools. The movement – led by a coalition of parents, teachers and other groups known as New York State Allies for Public Education – has tapped into frustration about how standardized tests have influenced what happens in the classroom and concern over how they’re used in teacher reviews.

What was once a boycott involving just a few hundred families ballooned during the last two years as more parents chose to tell their children not to take the tests. Organizers estimate that about 10,000 students refused the state assessments in 2013 and that roughly 60,000 refused them last year.

If organizers of the opt-out movement reach their goal of 250,000 students this year, it would be about 20 percent of the third- through eighth-graders in the state, said Eric Mihelbergel, a co-founder of New York State Allies for Public Education and a father of two girls in Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda schools.

“The goal is to stop the linkage of tests to teacher evaluations and school evaluations,” said Mihelbergel, who does not work in education but is married to a teacher. “It is not representative of what teachers do. Testing is not representative of what schools do.”

Until Monday, New York State United Teachers had not directly urged parents to tell their children to opt out of the exams, but the union since January has provided detailed information to parents about their rights and the potential consequences of opting out. In a radio interview in Albany on Monday, NYSUT President Karen Magee said she is now urging parents to opt out of the exams.

Magee’s comments came as state lawmakers were putting the final touches on a deal to revamp the state’s existing teacher evaluation system, which is tied to the state tests. By Tuesday, as details of the plan to rework the evaluation system emerged, the union made clear it disapproved of the changes. Union leaders called the new evaluation system an “unworkable, convoluted plan that undermines local control, disrespects principals and school administrators, guts collective bargaining and further feeds the testing beast.”

NYSUT officials Tuesday said parents and teachers flooded the union with emails of support since Magee’s call for a boycott of state standardized tests for their children.

In an interview with the Buffalo News Tuesday night outside the Assembly as the state education budget was being debated, Magee said, “There’s a lot of energy as it relates to parents asking about their rights to opt their students out.”

“The Common Core testing is something that doesn’t show that there’s any merit to it …Parents are very interested in how they can find more information about it and how they can go about exercising their rights on behalf of their children,” she said.

Asked the union’s end goal, she said parents have a right to more information about the tests. “They have a right to make a decision and, ultimately as a parent, if I was in that situation right now I would be opting my child out simply because I don’t wnt my child to sit and spend a lot of time on test prep and testing and having their teacher score all kinds of tests that take valuable time away from our students. I’d rather have my child learning and being challenged creatively and being asked to think and produce and work. We lose a lot of time on tests that are not valid indicators of student progress or teacher performance,” Magee said.

While state law dictates how teachers are evaluated, federal law requires that standardized tests in math and reading be given to students in third through eighth grades. Federal regulations also require at least 95 percent of students in a school to participate.

“The U.S. Department of Education has made clear that when a district fails to ensure that students participate in required state assessments, the state education agency is expected to consider imposing sanctions on that district, including – in the most egregious cases – withholding programmatic funds,” Jonathan Burman, a spokesman for the state Education Department, wrote in an email response to questions about the ramifications of testing opt-outs. “What sanctions to impose must be decided on a case-by-case basis, taking into account the degree and length of time the district has failed to meet participation rate requirements and the reasons for such failure.”

State officials also point to the state tests as one of the only measures of student progress that can be compared across the state.

“Why would you not want to know whether all students are making progress, not just the lucky few?” Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch told superintendents gathered in Albany in early March. “I do not pretend that test results are the only way we know, but they are an important piece of information. They are the only common measure of progress we have.”

As groups of parents have organized student boycotts of the math and English tests, School Board members in one area district are still considering a districtwide boycott of administering the state assessments. The Kenmore-Tonawanda Board of Education’s vote to “seriously consider” refusing to administer the state exams drew a swift warning from state education officials to comply with the law or risk being removed from office.

Mihelbergel said he has no way to know for sure how many students will actually opt out of the state tests later this month, but he expects the numbers to grow based on interest he has seen at rallies throughout the region in recent weeks in response to education proposals pushed forward by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

Donald Ogilvie, interim superintendent for Buffalo Public Schools and a longtime district superintendent at Erie 1 BOCES, said it has become clear that one of the main issues driving the opt-out movement is concern over the linkage of student test scores to teacher evaluations.

Ogilvie said the testing boycotts have already had an impact on public opinion and state lawmakers. “Ultimately, if the question is, will this be successful,” he said, “I will say, absolutely, it cannot be dismissed.”

News Albany Bureau Chief Tom Precious contributed to this story.