New York State Schools Won’t Be Penalized for Opt Outs


There will be no penalty for New York state school districts that had large numbers of students who refused to sit for the New York standardized tests this year.

Education officials made the announcement to put to rest the uncertainty over how districts would respond to the anti-testing movement. Kate Taylor of The New York Times reports that state and federal officials had warned for months that districts that fell below the 95% participation rate might stand to lose federal funds. Leaders of the “opt-out movement” argued that these were nothing but empty threats.

Over 200,000 third through eighth graders decided not to take the tests this year. In several districts, the number of students who opted-out were larger than the number of students who sat for the tests. Just last week, Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said she was unsure of whether the federal Education Department would withhold funding to districts with high rates of students who did not take the tests. She would not rule out whether the state would do the same.

But last week, the Chancellor of the State Board of Regents, Merryl H. Tisch, said the US Department of Education was leaving any financial penalty decisions to the state. Tisch, whose board oversees the state agency and appoints the commissioner, said the state would not be withholding any district funds.

“I think when you withdraw money from a school district, what you’re doing is you’re hurting the kids in the school district,” she said. “So I don’t think that’s an effective way to deal with it.”

Such a large number of students refused to take the exams this year — quadruple the number who did so last year – that the state was not able to analyze the test results in an appropriate manner. Many believed that parents chose to have their children opt-out because of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s insistence on tying the results to teacher evaluations, which angered many parents and teachers.

Elia has said that she will work with districts and schools with high opt-out rates to reverse the number of test refusals for this school year. Tisch explained that withholding money in the future could still occur if the state found that district officials were encouraging opt-outs. Instead, she said, officials should be working with parents to help them understand the importance of the testing system to the district and to the school.

But Loy Gross, co-founder of a test refusal group called United to the Core, was of a different opinion.

“I think parents who are most informed and educated about the nature of the tests are the very parents who are opting out,” she said. “So she can direct the superintendents to say anything they want to — I don’t think it’s going to have an impact on the opt-out rate.”

The significant increase in test refusals was led by protest groups formed by parents who disagree with various state education policies, including the use of Common Core education standards on which the tests are based, reports Jon Campbell, writing for the Democrat and Chronicle.

The latest version of teacher evaluations was supposed to be based more heavily on this round of tests and is the fourth change in teacher performance reviews in five years, according to Karen DeWitt of North Country Public Radio.

Carl Korn, spokesman for the New York State United Teachers, says teachers have complained that the tests are not well-designed and are not capable of accurately measuring teacher performance. Lorn said the evaluation system has now “been rendered more volatile and more unstable.”

Keisha Clukey, reporting for Politico New York, wrote that when Gov. Cuomo was asked if districts should be penalized for having large numbers of students refusing to take the state standardized tests, he said:

I don’t believe there [there should be] sanctions for opt outs. And parents, at the end of the day, parents are in charge and parents make the decisions.”