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Opt-out cloud lingering as students face next round of New York State tests

Fewer questions.

Unlimited time to take the test.

Teachers involved in selecting the questions.

New York State is hoping that those changes to the English language arts and math tests will be enough to convince parents to opt in to state assessments this year.

But some parents remain unconvinced.

“For our kids, nothing has changed,” said Molly M. Dana, a West Seneca parent who is on the steering committee for Western New Yorkers for Public Education. “In my opinion, the tests are a waste of time, so to give kids an unlimited amount of time is developmentally inappropriate.”

The tests, taken by students in third through eighth grades, were shortened by a “minuscule” amount, Dana said, and she predicted that the number of children not taking the test this year will grow.

Another parent active in the opt-out movement agrees.

“My feeling is it’s going to go up again this year because the parents are spreading the word,” said Eric L. Mihelbergel, a City of Tonawanda parent who helped found Western New Yorkers for Public Education.

More than 220,000 students opted out of taking state tests last year.

No one knows how many parents might keep their third- through eighth-graders home from the English language arts, or ELA, and math assessments this spring. The ELA tests start April 5, and the math tests start April 13.

And now, after the new chancellor of New York’s Board of Regents, Betty A. Rosa, said last week that if she had children, she would opt them out this year, it’s still anybody’s guess how many parents will do just that. Her comment certainly added strength to the movement that has grown over the last three years.

“I think it’s encouraging,” parent and anti-testing advocate Christopher J. Cerrone, of Springville, said of the chancellor’s comments. “It shows that opt-out is a force for change.”

Cerrone, a parent and educator, is a co-founder of New York State Allies for Public Education, one of the main groups pushing for changes in the tests.

Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said that she has heard complaints about the assessments from parents across the state and that and adjustments have been made.

Among the changes this year: Each of the ELA tests will have one less reading passage, and both ELA and math will have two to six fewer multiple-choice questions. Students will have unlimited time to finish each test, as long as they are productively working.

A new contractor, Questar Assessment, was hired to create tests starting next year. While the old vendor, Pearson, created this year’s tests, educators met last fall and selected the questions. By the 2018 test, teachers will be writing questions, according to a January memo from the state Education Department.

“I’m encouraged by the changes that the state has implemented,” said James E. Przepasniak, superintendent at Lake Shore Central Schools, where last year 61 percent of students refused to take the state assessments.

Przepasniak said he has heard from some parents that their children were stressed over certain timed components of the tests. “With these modifications, some of that anxiety should be taken away,” he said.

“To me, it’s just a part of the state’s message of we’re changing our tune and going back to using these tests for what they were to be used for,” Frontier Central Superintendent Bret C. Apthorpe said. “The whole tenor has completely changed from the previous high stakes.”

But that’s not how those in the opt-out movement see it.

While there is a moratorium on using state assessments for teacher evaluations, local tests still will be used to evaluate teachers, and schools are still being evaluated based on the state assessments, which affects what happens in the classroom, they say.

“Education in the classroom gets reduced to what is going to be on the test,” Mihelbergel said. “We’re seeing kids coming home exhausted, not enjoying school at all. I think we have to find a better balance.”

The state calls the changes “significant,” but those in the opt-out movement said little has changed this year.

What will it take for them to opt in?

Permanently detach test scores from teacher, administrator and school evaluations, reduce the time spent taking and preparing for tests to age-appropriate levels, provide test scores to teachers and parents in a timely manner and use them to diagnose strengths and weaknesses in children.

“Any kind of test our children take should not be attached to a teacher’s evaluation,” Dana said. “It changes the purpose when that happens.”

Even before the Regents chancellor said that if she were a parent, she would have her children opt out of the tests, opt-outers were predicting record numbers would refuse the test again this year.

Some administrators say the buildup to the state tests has not been as feverish as last year. Advocates of refusal say that’s because many people already have made up their minds.

“I just don’t hear the rancor that I heard a year ago,” said Mark J. Crawford, superintendent in West Seneca, where last year 71 percent of students refused to take the tests. “I think we all sense there has been movement, certainly with the Board of Regents.”

So if the stakes aren’t quite as high as they have been, have they been lowered enough for parents to send children to school with their No. 2 pencils on test days?

Hamburg Superintendent Michael R. Cornell said the answer to that question may be determined by how effective parents believe the testing program to be, and how it affects the learning experience throughout the year. Last year, 49 percent of Hamburg students refused the test.

“I’m hopeful it’s enough,” he said, but he added, “There are still a lot of people who have significant questions.”