It has become a spring tradition: About 1 million students in New York will sharpen their pencils or start up their computers for state assessments this week, while about 200,000 of their classmates will not.
And in keeping with tradition, dueling groups are urging parents to say "Yes to the test," or to have their third- through eighth-graders sit out until more changes are made in the tests and how they are used.
Some things have changed since the opt-out movement began six years ago with pockets of children around the state, including one in Western New York, refusing to take the state tests:
- The tests have been shortened. This year, the English language arts and math assessments will take place over two days instead of three days.
- Many questions have been written by teachers.
- The opt-out movement has grown over the years, and but has weakened slightly in the past several years.
- A four-year moratorium on using test results in teacher evaluations remains in place this year.
It has been fairly quiet in the ramp up for the assessments for the second year in a row as most parents seem to have made up their minds whether their children should take the English language arts and math assessments.
There has been a slight decline in the number of students "opting" out of taking the assessments, though many observers expect the areas of resistance, particularly in some suburban areas, to remain. Last year, the statewide test refusal rate was about 19 percent, a 2 percent drop from the previous year.
"We think it’s a trend," said Stephen Sigmund, executive director of High Achievement New York. "Most districts around the state have increased their participation."
Sigmund traveled around the state last week, meeting with local members of the statewide coalition advocating for children to take the assessments.
Buffalo's proficiency rate on the English language arts exam last year was 18 percent, said Brenda McDuffie, president and CEO of the Buffalo Urban League, which is a member of High Achievement New York. Members of the group are encouraging participation in the tests.
"The rest of our kids aren't making it. If we don't assess, we wouldn't know that," she said. "We really think it’s a really critical tool so we can demand investment be made in education and different approaches and tools be used to meet these children's needs."
While the state has taken some of the stakes away from the "high stakes" tests, such as not using them for teacher evaluations, districts still see them as crucial. Buffalo Public Schools sent home a "practice booklet" over spring break last week, and encouraged parents to review their children's answers with them to help prevent learning loss over the week off.
Chris Cerrone, one of the co-founders of Western New Yorkers for Public Education and New York State Allies for Public Education, groups that encourage refusing the tests, believes the opt-out movement has influenced the state Education Department and is responsible for reducing test length and other changes in the assessments.
"There's still pressure because of state and federal laws that will force many school districts to concentrate on the tests," he said, adding that some districts do too much test preparation, and not enough teaching of critical thinking.
Cerrone said opting out is not only about rejecting the test, but challenging students with a higher level of learning than test prep.
Shirley Verrico, who has three children, said she is not against testing, but opposes the format of the test and the way the data is used. She also said all of the test questions should be made public, and students' answers should be released so teachers and parents can use the tests as a diagnostic tool.
"I don't get to see the tests, I don’t see the questions," Verrico said. "Why would I have my 9-year-old take a test that no one is allowed to talk about?"
New York State requires the English Language Arts assessments to be given over two days. The tests are untimed, for the second year, and students have as much time as they need to finish as long as they are "working productively." Computer-based tests can be given between Tuesday and April 17, and paper-based tests can be given between Wednesday and Friday.
Math assessments begin May 1.