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Fewer kids are opting out, but boycott advocates say testing is still 'flawed'

By Jay Rey and Barbara O'Brien

Is the opt-out movement losing steam?

The number of students refusing to take the state standardized tests dropped slightly for the second straight year, according to results of the grade 3 to 8 assessments released this week by the state Education Department.

In Western New York, which still has one of the strongest opt-out movements in the state, all 38 school districts in Erie and Niagara counties saw a decline in the number of students opting out since the high-water mark recorded by the state in 2016.

Still, more than 200,000 kids across New York State boycotted the state tests in the spring. The number was down 1 percent to 18 percent.

While it is a small decrease statewide, that’s not insignificant considering the number of students, said State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia.

“We certainly have to say the trend is going in the right direction,” Elia said.

The decrease of 1 percentage point, she noted, was 23,000 students in ELA and almost 29,000 students in math.

"That’s a substantial number of students," Elia said.

Those who protest the tests say that while the movement has influenced the state to make some changes, the reasons for the boycott remain.

Springville parent Chris Cerrone, an early proponent of boycotting the assessments and co-founder of two groups opposed to the tests, said the small drop was most likely due to pressure and misleading information from the state and local districts.

"Families are still fighting a flawed system that has been slow to change," he said.

The opt-out movement is more than not taking a test, said Cerrone, a school board member and a teacher.

"Many opt-out families are also currently advocating for daily recess, along with collaborative, creative and critical thinking in the classroom, to move beyond the test prep that some schools choose because of the pressure of test scores," he said.

A look at the opt-out rates released by New York State shows:

• The largest drop in Erie and Niagara counties was in Lackawanna, where the opt-out rate on the state math test declined 33 percentage points since 2016. North Collins and Lake Shore also saw substantial decreases in the number of opt-outs. Akron saw the least change.

• Erie and Niagara counties still have some of the highest opt-out rates in New York State, with rates in both counties well above the state average of 18 percent.

• West Seneca had the highest opt-out rates among local school districts, with 65 percent of its students opting out of the state math test last year. Half or more of the students at North Tonawanda and Iroquois opted out.

• Suffolk and Nassau counties had the highest average opt-out rates of all counties in the state, with 47 percent of students refusing the test. Lewis County had the lowest rate, at 4 percent. Suffolk County also is home to the district with the highest opt-out rate, of 86 percent, in Comsewogue, and two of the eight districts where all students took the tests.

'We have a ways to go, but it's a good thing'

The commissioner attributes the drop to a variety of changes the state has made, after listening to concerns by parents and teachers. That includes shortening the tests from three days to two, giving students as much time as they need to complete the tests and releasing to educators 75 percent of the questions after the tests are given. That way, teachers can help frame their instruction for students.

Parents, Elia said, are starting to see that their concerns were heard and that the state is doing what it said it would do.

“When I first came, there were a lot of people who anticipated it would go up substantially every year,” Elia said. “We have a ways to go, but it’s a good thing."

Some parents may be burned out from fighting the system, but the opt-out movement will continue, said Lancaster parent Heidi Indelicato.

"I think people are just aware still of what they want education to look like in New York State," she said. "They don’t want a testing-crazed culture in the classroom and over-usage and dependency on computer testing."

One of the issues likely to influence whether the opt-out numbers continue to go down is the implementation of the state’s new learning standards over the next couple years and the redesign of the state tests in 2021.

The state has been rolling out the changes more gradually to prepare teachers, as opposed to the last time when the state was criticized for rushing out the tests before teachers had been fully trained in the new standards, leading to complaints that teachers were teaching to the test.

Another factor is what happens with teacher evaluations.

The state’s public school teachers and their unions were among Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s earliest targets when he took office in 2011. A deal was struck in 2012 to link student performance on state assessments to teacher job evaluations.

But the linkage failed to fully take into account New York’s challenges between rich and poor districts and the controversy over implementation of Common Core standards, creating an uproar that sparked the opt-out movement.

The state ultimately initiated a moratorium, which runs through the end of the 2018-19 school year.

'The message is getting out there'

The New York State United Teachers, meanwhile, has pushed for a law decoupling the test results from teacher evaluations, which are used in such matters as determining tenure.

The Assembly went along with NYSUT's wishes, and the governor said he would sign such a bill. The Republican-controlled Senate also passed a bill to decouple the tests and evaluations, but it included a poison pill for the union: expansion of charter schools in New York City.

In the end, changes to the teacher evaluation process stalled.

It is expected to be a priority when the Legislature reconvenes in January, but its fate will likely hinge on the November elections and who wins control of the State Senate.

High Achievement New York, a statewide coalition of business, civil rights groups, educators and parents supporting the assessments, thinks the trend toward greater test participation is clear.

"I think the message is getting out there to younger parents," said Brian Fritsch, executive director of the group.

He thinks there will be an agreement on teacher evaluations that will take them out of the testing equation for good.

But teacher evaluations tied to test scores is just one of the issues, and resolving that won't be the end of opt-out, according to Cerrone.

"More concerning are the flaws in the assessment program that falsely label students as failures, along with testing driving instruction, instead of the real-world skills that our children need," he said.

Mary Pasciak contributed to this report.

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