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State won't penalize school districts with high opt-out numbers

School districts with high numbers of students boycotting state standardized tests would not be penalized under changes being recommended by the state Education Department.

New regulations proposed in May could have forced school districts with high opt-out rates to use a portion of their federal funding to encourage greater participation on the state assessments.

Instead, the state Education Department is proposing that the Board of Regents remove that controversial provision when it meets Monday.

“I’m glad they decided to not put that in there, because that’s not the intent of the money,” said Christopher J. Cerrone, a co-founder of Western New Yorkers for Public Education and New York State Allies for Public Education, groups that encourage refusing the tests. “It’s a positive step.”

The state is rolling out new regulations intended to meet requirements set down under federal legislation approved in 2015 known as the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.

The federal law requires, among many other things, a 95 percent participation rate on the state assessments in math and English language arts administered in the spring.

It also gives states leeway on how to meet that goal, including requiring districts with consistently low participation to set aside Title I funds – money allocated for low-income students – to boost participation.

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The impact would have been far reaching in school districts around New York, including those like West Seneca and Williamsville, which have had high opt-out rates in recent years.

The state Education Department said it received about 1,900 comments in response to its draft regulations, the majority of which were related to student participation on the state assessments.

Based on that feedback, state officials decided to scrap the plan.

“Paramount to any good public policy is engagement with stakeholders,” State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said. “Following a thoughtful and productive discussion and considering the comments received, I am confident these changes will benefit students across the state.”

The decision drew praise from union leaders. New York State United Teachers called it "a victory for the hundreds of NYSUT members who opposed the draft regulations and defended parents’ right to opt their children out without penalty or pressure."

A full list of the proposed changes can be found on the state Education Department's website.

NYSUT noted, however, that proposed regulations still will take participation rates into consideration when identifying schools in need of improvement. One of the changes under consideration by the Board of Regents on Monday would also make it easier for schools with high opt-out rates to get off that list, as long as they are performing well academically.

Some think that's not enough. Cerrone said the regulations would still unnecessarily label some schools with high opt-out rates as needing improvement, putting pressure on school administrators to reduce opt-outs, which in turn puts pressure on parents to opt-in.

“You’re pitting schools against families,” Cerrone said, “and that’s a shame that it’s happening.”

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