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Anti-test movement strong, despite opt-out numbers decreasing in WNY

West Seneca Central continues to be opt-out central, with nearly three-quarters of its students refusing to take the English Language Arts state assessments Tuesday.

The opt-out movement seemed to remain strong, although opt-out numbers are down in some Western New York school districts and districts around the state also reported more students are taking the tests than last year.

And there was a glitch that gave 64 students in the state – including two in Lake Shore – the wrong computer-based test Monday.

West Seneca, which had one of the highest ELA opt-out rates in the state the last two years with 71 and 73 percent, had a small drop, with 68 percent of students refusing to take the tests Tuesday, according to Jonathan Dalbo, director of instructional technology and social studies. He noted that sometimes there's an uptick in the numbers in the subsequent days of the three-day test, and more refusals may come in for the math tests that begin in May.

In East Aurora, 280 students, or 35 percent, of those taking the tests opted out Tuesday. The opt-out rate was 24 percent in the elementary school and 39 percent in the middle school, said middle school Principal Matthew Brown. He said things went smoothly, but there were a lot of last-minute opt-outs in the middle school. The district's opt-out rate for ELA was 37 percent last year.

"We had over 100 of those letters appear this morning," he said. "We were ready, we anticipated it."

Critics say the assessment tests include questions that are too advanced for the grade levels and do not adequately diagnose student weaknesses. Many disagree with the Common Core standards the tests are based upon. Critics also fear that when a moratorium on using the test results for teacher evaluations ends, teachers who don't teach to the test will be penalized.

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

Although Frontier Superintendent Bret Apthorpe said he did not have totals for the whole district, there were fewer test refusals. At one school, Blasdell Elementary, there were 79 refusing the test, compared to 116 last year, he said.

"That's kind of what we're hearing," he said.

He said he believes the numbers are down because there is a moratorium on using the assessments for teacher evaluations.

The ELA test has not been without some minor problems. Of the 4,146 students taking the tests on computers Monday, 64 third-graders received the fourth-grade test. Two of those were at Lake Shore.

"There were a couple glitches that were rectified almost immediately," Lake Shore Superintendent James Przepasniak said. "The state was very good in getting back to us if we had a question."

He said the children were given the Day 1 test for fourth grade, and it was noticed almost immediately. They took Day 1 of the third-grade test Tuesday.

"As soon as becoming aware of the issue, Questar immediately contacted these schools so the affected students could stop taking the tests," state Education Department spokesman Jonathan Burman said in a statement, referring to the consultant that administers the test for the state. "Parents of the affected students will be notified by the schools."

Some schools discovered the error before students started taking the exam. Students who completed the wrong test were not asked to take the correct first-day test, unless their parents want them to, according to the Education Department.

There were 220 taking the test on computers at Lake Shore Monday, and the district has a total of 600 signed up in different grades to take the ELA and math assessments, the superintendent said.

Przepasniak said the number opting out at Lake Shore was down compared to last year, but he did not have complete numbers.

"We are going to put data together about opt outs at different grade levels," he said.

Opt-out lobbying continues online and through social media, with statewide and local opt-out groups putting out the word that it's not too late to refuse the tests, and offering sample letters to districts. Another group has adopted the Say Yes to the Test initiative.

Because the tests are starting in March, not April, there may have been more students walking in Monday morning with refusal letters.

"I think it snuck up on a lot of people," said Shirley Verrico, the mother of three Williamsville Central students who have not participated in the state assessments for the last five years.

She said she had parents calling and texting her Monday asking how to opt-out.

High Achievement New York, a statewide coalition of parents, teachers, administrators as well as community and business leaders in support of Common Core, is promoting the tests statewide, including statements from Brenda McDuffie, president and CEO of the Buffalo Urban League, and Samuel Radford, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council of Buffalo.

“Day one reports show a continued trend against opt outs and towards even greater participation, and that's good for students and for New York's future," said Steve Sigmund, executive director of High Achievement New York. "These assessments provide an annual check-up for students, identify achievement gaps so they can be closed, and have gotten better through listening to the concerns of parents and educators."

But parents don't refuse just because of the test, said Verrico, a member of Western New Yorkers for Public Education.

"This isn't about one test on one day. This is about the impact of this testing system and the fallout that happens because of it," Verrico said.

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