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As state assessment season returns, signs that opting out is declining – slightly

Most students in grades three through eight in New York will walk into their classrooms next week, pencil or computer keyboard in hand, and take the state assessments in ELA.

But as has become commonplace, some will sit out, despite the changes the state Education Department has made in creating, administering and using the results of the tests.

The opt-out movement, which reached its strongest point in 2016, has been weakening in recent years, but only slightly. More than 200,000 children, or 18 percent, still opted out of the English language arts and math tests last year. And Western New York remains one of the areas where the opt-out movement is strongest.

Shirley Verrico of Amherst longs for the days when state assessments in math and English were used mainly to evaluate programs and not individual students.

"I feel for the young parents who don’t know it wasn’t always like this. They don’t realize it used to be different," she said.

Her youngest, a seventh grader in the Williamsville Central School District, will be sitting out this year's assessments. He has never taken the ELA or math tests. Her older children took them, until the emphasis changed to evaluating teachers and schools, placing high stakes on the tests, she said. One of them is at the University of Pittsburgh studying theoretical physics, the other will graduate this June and study dance.

"It's not testing that’s a problem for me; it's the way that this set of tests have been misused," Verrico said.

That's not an uncommon opinion; it is shared by the New York State Allies for Public Education, which offers parents its 2019 version of an Opt-out letter to schools on its website.

It states: "We refuse to allow any data to be used for purposes other than the individual teacher’s own formative or cumulative assessment. We are opposed to assessments whose data is used to determine school ranking, teacher effectiveness, or any other purpose other than for the individual classroom teacher’s own use to improve his or her instruction."

But High Achievement New York, a statewide group made up of educators, parents, civic and business leaders, has a different take.

"I think it's important to have an objective assessment of whether students are learning what we believe is important," said Brian Fritsch, executive director of High Achievement New York. "We’ve gone through a long process in New York State of revising the state's learning standards. There should be an objective measure to make sure children are meeting those standards."

New York made changes in recent years to address some of the complaints. The tests are taken over two days, not three. As long as they are working productively, students have unlimited time to finish the assessments. The state said "hundreds" of educators were involved in creating and reviewing questions.

The tests cannot be used to evaluate teachers this year, the last year in a moratorium that prevents linking the tests to evaluations. The State Legislature has passed a bill stating that the assessments may be used in evaluating teachers, but it gives local districts the option of using other assessments.

Test refusals started in the spring of 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 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.

Last year, every district in Erie and Niagara counties saw an increase in participation.

West Seneca schools have been opt-out central in Erie County, and in 2016, more than 70 percent of students did not take the assessments. Participation has been climbing slowly since then, with 65 percent refusing last year.

This year, the district held a public forum in the fall about the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA. One provision requires states to ensure that 95 percent of students in each public school participate in required assessments. A lower participation rate could affect the accountability status of a school or district, according to New York State.

Administrators have visited each of West Seneca's nine schools letting them know that state assessments are part of a district's overall rating under the federal act, Superintendent Matthew Bystrak said.

"We're trying to educate people and let them know what is involved," Bystrak said.

But it still comes down to the wishes of the parents. If a parent sends in a note opting out of the assessments, "there's not going to be an argument, there's not going to be a push back," Bystrak said.

Fritsch, of High Achievement New York, said he believes the trend toward greater participation will continue this year.

"It's taken some time, but parents are aware that a lot of their concerns have been listened to," he said.

 

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