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Has opt-out movement peaked? Schools here wait to see

It's been quieter this year in the lead-up to New York State English language arts assessments, which begin this week. It seems the lines have not moved much since more than 200,000 students around the state refused to take the standardized test last year.

"Opting out" started in spring 2012, when small numbers of children in school districts in pockets around the state did not take New York State assessments.

The movement continued to grow each year, and by 2016, the opt-out rate in New York State had grown to 21 percent of students, despite changes made in the tests and a campaign by the state education commissioner to encourage participation.

In West Seneca, three out of every four students refused to take the ELA and math tests in 2016, the highest opt-out rate in any of the 38 school districts in Erie and Niagara counties.

No one knows how the numbers will shake out Tuesday when the ELA assessments begin for most third- through eighth-graders across New York State. Math assessments will be given in May.

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia has done little publicly to rally students to take the tests this year, beyond placing online a fact sheet on what parents need to know about the assessments and frequently asked questions about the tests.

A group that endorses the tests, High Achievement New York, started a campaign around the state last week to "Say Yes to the Test," while groups like Western New York Allies for Public Education and  New York State Allies for Public Education  are spreading the word on how and why to opt out.

"The people who are for it, continue to be for it, and the people against it continue to be against it," said Steve Sigmund, executive director of High Achievement New York.

Some of the early complaints about the tests remain, including that they are not valid measure of progress, that too much money and too much time are spent on testing and preparing for the tests, and that the emphasis on the high-stakes test causes unnecessary stress.

"We are narrowing the curriculum, teaching to the test, and children are missing out on a rich and meaningful education," said Shirley Verrico, a parent who lives in the Williamsville Central School District and is a member of Western New York Allies.

The mother of three said she has opted her children out of the tests the past five years, and her fifth-grader will sit out again this year. She said no significant changes have been made in the tests, which still have reading passages and questions above the grade level that can derail some students, and scores are still used to rank students. She also said yearly tests are too frequent.

"Test them in fourth and eighth, and let them go off to high school," Verrico said.

Lake Shore Central School District teacher Amanda Galenda pushes a cart that holds Chromebook laptops on March 23, 2017, at A.J. Schmidt Elementary School in Angola. For the first time, students there will use computers to take the state English language arts assessment tests. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Some of the issues with the test have been addressed, according to the state. There is a moratorium for three more years on using the assessments for teacher evaluations. New York State last year reduced the number of questions and removed the time limit to take them so students could work at their own pace. Teachers from the state selected questions for this year's tests, and they will write the test questions for next year's tests.

"I think the response continues to get better as time goes on," Sigmund said. "I would hope there is a continued, sort of gradual decline in the opt-out number."

In Erie and Niagara counties, most districts had fewer students taking the test in 2016 than the year before. But Lake Shore Central was a notable exception, where the opt-out rate went from 61 percent to 51 percent on the ELA exams.

Superintendent James Przepasniak said he was not sure what accounts for the drop.

"I would not profess that we did anything great or creative or different than we've done in the past, other than communicating to our parents that these changes have occurred, and that we encourage participation," he said.

The major change this year is that some districts will administer the ELA and math tests on computers. Students taking the computer-based test will have to answer the same questions as those taking the paper version, according to the state. Students in 14 of the 96 school districts in Western New York will use computers.

The long-term plan is to have all districts use the computer-based test for annual state tests because it has the potential to make the assessments stronger instructional tools and will make it possible to get test results back sooner, according to the state Education Department.

Some Lake Shore Central students in every grade level will be using Chromebooks for the three-day ELA, which starts Monday for them. Students can choose to take the test on paper if they prefer. Przepasniak doesn't know if the technology might lure some students back to the test.

"We felt our staff were comfortable with the initiative. As we got into the decision making phase we felt we were prepared, and actually our kids are somewhat excited," he said.

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