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Will opt-outs affect teacher evaluations?

More than 175,000 students in New York refused to take the state’s English language arts test this week, and now some are wondering how the refusals will affect teacher evaluations.

Evaluations are based in part on how students perform on the state assessments, which is why the head of New York State United Teachers and others called for parents to boycott them.

But now that more than 10 percent of students in the state opted out of taking the test, it’s unclear what will happen to teachers in classes where most students did not sit for the exam.

The teachers union says some teachers will not be able to be evaluated, which is contrary to state law.

But a state Education Department spokesman said there are enough students who took the test statewide – and each district is supposed to have already set up a back-up plan.

“We are confident the department will be able to generate a representative sample of students who took the test, generate valid scores for those students who took the test, and calculate valid state-provided growth scores to be used in teacher evaluations,” Education Department spokesman Jonathan Burman said in an email.

Opt-out proponents were still collecting statistics on the number of students who refused tests this week. Friday, they put the number at more than 175,000, although that did not include about one-third of districts. Some expect the number to increase next week, with third through eighth graders taking the math assessments Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

It’s exciting for the opt-out movement, said Chis Cerrone, a local teacher and school board member who was speaking as a parent and member of New York State Allies for Public Education.

“We think there will be higher numbers next week because of frustrations students had with the ELA,” Cerrone said.

Local school districts did not have statistics on individual classrooms, but at one school – Allendale Elementary in West Seneca – only 10 of 81 fourth graders took the ELA test.

“Last year we tended to have a few more math opt-outs,” added West Seneca Superintendent Mark Crawford.

“We hope that the number will continue to increase and they will have an impact on our state legislators and federal legislators that will change some of the laws that mandate high stakes testing,” Cerrone said.

That may be happening in Washington, D.C. The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions has signed off on a bill that would overhaul some of the provisions in the No Child Left Behind Act. The Every Child Achieves Act, which had bipartisan support on the committee, would strengthen state and local control and roll back the federal requirement for teacher evaluations. It still would require assessments in third through eighth grades, but would leave states to decide how to use the tests.

Twenty percent of a teacher’s evaluation is based on a growth model based on the state assessment, and teachers need a minimum number of students to take the assessment to be assigned a growth score. Students are compared with pools of students with similar demographic characteristics from throughout the state.

A locally-developed standard of achievement accounts for another 20 percent of the teacher evaluation, and 60 percent is based on observations of the teachers.

Because so many opted out, the pool of students with similar characteristics will be smaller, and the volatility and instability of the score will be greater, said Carl Korn, a spokesman for NYSUT.

But there is a provision in the law for when too few students are tested to generate a meaningful state-provided growth score for a teacher. The back-up is for the district to create a Student Learning Objective, or SLO.

“It is a written plan that would be implemented if the teacher did not receive a score because of the number of students who didn’t take an assessment,” said Lake Shore School Superintendent James Przepasniak.

Each district will have a slightly different plan, depending on what was negotiated with the teachers’ union and approved by the state. In Lake Shore, where 59 percent of students opted out, its backup is to use the building level score, Przepasniak said.

“In cases where the number of opt-outs just surged, some districts may not have been prepared for that. Now they have to scramble to replace that,” said Robert N. Lowry Jr., of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

“It would be inappropriate to go back and try to jerry rig the SLO for teachers without a growth score,” Korn said. “We think State Ed is making it up on the fly. They don’t know what to do.”

“The idea of preparing a “back-up SLO” is not new and has long been part of our guidance to the field,” Burman said.

In a notice sent to educators Friday, the Education Department said it has “consistently recommended” that those with a small class size create a back-up.