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Opt-out movement again shows strength in the region

It appears the opt-out movement continues to be strong in the region, after students finished the first day of the state assessments in English language arts Tuesday.

Initial reports are that districts with high opt-out numbers experienced high numbers again this year. Some numbers went down, and others went up slightly.

And educators reported an ordinary, normal day at school, handling opting out of a standardized test almost routinely in the fourth year of the movement.

“Most people have made up their minds of where they are and what they believe,” said Iroquois Central Superintendent Douglas Scofield.

About 55 percent of students in third through eighth grades did not take the test in Iroquois on Tuesday, he said. That compares with 58 percent who opted out of the ELA and math tests last year.

Children seemed to have the opt-out drill down this year.

At Iroquois Middle School, team leaders greeted children as they came to school, dividing the test takers and the opt-outers, and taking them to separate rooms.

Despite a large number of opt-out letters coming Tuesday morning, “it actually went quite smooth this morning,” Scofield said. Students whose parents sent in letters were allowed to read during the test, which lasted about 60 to 80 minutes, depending on the grade level.

“I would love everyone to have made their decision a week ago,” he added.

Opt-out organizations and anti-test groups have been making sample letters to districts available online for weeks. As they counted down on social media the days to the start of testing, they urged parents to get their letters in early.

“It has been very quiet this year. I know that our parents have been very active in social media,” West Seneca Superintendent Mark Crawford said.

That may have helped districts plan for what to do on test day.

In West Seneca, about 71 percent opted out Tuesday, which appears to be the highest rate in any area district in the region and among the top in the state. It’s a similar rate to last year, when 71 percent refused the math and ELA tests. Those students went to a separate room to read, although if there were just a few taking the test in a class, they may have been the ones to move to a new room, Crawford said.

West Seneca’s Allendale Elementary was one of the schools State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia visited last week to spread the word that she had heard parents, and that changes had been made to the tests, including uncoupling test scores from teacher and principal evaluations for four years.

Opting out of the standardized tests was a small but growing movement in 2013, and expanded to record levels across New York by last year, when more than 220,000 students refused to take the assessments.

Just two years ago, some superintendents bristled at being asked about “opting out,” noting that there is no opting out of state tests. They were called refusals. But today even the education commissioner refers to the opt-out movement.

Students have been taking state test for years, under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. But when they were aligned with the Common Core standards four years ago and became a factor in the annual evaluations of teachers, the opt-out movement took off.

This year, the new chancellor of New York’s Board of Regents, Betty A. Rosa, said that if she had children of school age, she would opt them out at this time.

And while the education commissioner came to town to talk up the tests, she said in West Seneca that she believes that parents have the right to make decisions about whether their children take the test.

Lake Shore and East Aurora are among districts that saw an increase in test takers. In East Aurora, about 35 percent opted out this year compared to 45 percent last year.

“I think people do see some improvement at the state level,” Superintendent Brian D. Russ said.

Students who did not sit for the test were taken to a different room and allowed to read, he said. The district had contemplated leaving them in the classroom and letting them read after the first child finished the test, but decided against that “sit and stare” policy.

In Lake Shore last year, about 58 percent opted out on the first day of ELA testing, but Tuesday, about 50 percent refused the test.

“I hope that parents understood that the state Education Department listened. They made modifications to the assessments,” Lake Shore Superintendent James Przepasniak said. “I think that many of the concerns have been either addressed or taken into consideration.”

Lancaster Central saw a slight increase. There were 49 percent opting out Tuesday, and last year 44 percent of students opted out.

Despite the large number of opt-outs in some districts, many reported it has been a quiet year for discussion about testing and opting out.

“I have not talked to one parent about refusing or opting out of this year’s assessments,” Przepasniak said. “No one has approached me. No one has called me.”

Buffalo Public Schools had one of the lowest opt-out rates in the area last year of 9 percent. District spokeswoman Elena Cala said the percentage this year also is quite low, but she said the district would not release any preliminary numbers. There are 14,984 students in city schools eligible to take the test, she said.