An update on testing and opt-out

As we are working on negotiating a new APPR plan per the revised education law, it’s time to take a look at the state of state testing that underpins the whole thing. Here’s a quick summary of some of the stories and blog posts from the past few weeks.

Test Results

The state released test score data mid-August. Reports that there was some growth in ELA scores only served to highlight how mathematically deficient most news outlets are. Increases of 1-2% are simply not statistically significant. As Carol Burris noted, “At this rate of increase, it will take about 70 years for all New York students to meet both New York Common Core proficiency cut scores.”

(If you’re curious how SWR did, click here for Wading River and here for Prodell – but seriously, why bother? It’s truly meaningless data)

Even more telling (and not the least bit surprising to anyone who actually works with children), is that as inappropriate as the testing is for the general population, it’s far worse for our most at-risk students; the achievement gap for special ed students and minority students is widening.

Opt-Out Results

The final tally showed that about 20% of all 3-8 students in NY State (roughly 200,000) opted out of one or both tests. While that fell a little short of NYSAPE’s goal of 250,000, it represents a growth of 400% vs. the year before. Within this number are some huge disparities. In NYC, which accounts for 40% of the state in terms of 3-8 students, only 2% opted out.

The Response to Opt-Out

NYSAPE is pushing hard to make sure that that this coming year’s opt-out numbers will be even stronger. They are encouraging parents to get their opt-out letters in now. On the other side, Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia is trying to do everything in her power (and some things out of her power) to stop the opt-out movement. She initially had said she was going to try to withhold Title 1 funding from districts with high opt-outs. Fortunately, Governor Cuomo threw her under the bus and said he didn’t think districts with high opt-outs should be sanctioned, and after the USDOE stated they would leave decisions about penalties to the states, Regents Chancellor Tisch announced that districts with high opt-outs would not lose funding. (as a side note, it is insane that that this was even considered – taking funding away from the neediest students when, in most cases, those students are least likely to be the ones who actually opted out?????)

Commissioner Elia is not giving up, however. She has been a vocal opponent of the opt-out movement, calling it “unreasonable”, and although she recently did acknowledge that parents do have the right to opt-out, she is putting together a “tool kit,” (or as Assemblyman Jim Tedesco calls it, a “goon squad“) for Superintendents to implement to combat opt-outs. Most notably, she has signaled a desire to go after teachers if opt-out continues: ““I am absolutely shocked if, and I don’t know that this happened, but if any educators supported and encouraged opt-outs. I think it’s unethical.” More on that below, but first a few other responses to the Opt-out movement.

  • Assemblyman Al Graf has started a petition to have MaryEllen Elia fired.
  • Carol Burris responds to Commissioner Elia, saying it’s unethical NOT to speak out.
  • Melissa McMullan, Comsewogue teacher and SWR parent points out that if there are ethical violations here, they are on the part of NYSED
  • Regents Chancellor Tisch, who has previously argued that opting out was a terrible mistake and likened opting to refusing vaccines, nonetheless says  “If I was the mother of a student with a certain type of disability, I would think twice before I allowed my child to sit through an exam that was incomprehensible to them”
  • Just prior to the start of school, Pat-Med Superintendent Michael Hynes sent a letter to all of his teachers telling them he didn’t care one bit about their test-based APPR scores. He followed that with a letter to parents informing them of their right to opt-out and making sure they know there is no penalty for refusing the tests.

What Next?

It will be very interesting to see how this plays out. Commissioner Elia has a lot riding on stemming the opt-out tide. Now that she’s acknowledged she can’t force parents to allow their kids to take the tests, her only option is through educators. Her use of the phrase “I think it’s unethical.” is very telling ethical violations are one path to a 3020A hearing and her choice of words was no accident. Does she plan to have NYSED go after individual teachers or superintendents who are accused of promoting opt out? It seems unfathomable, as the backlash would likely be huge, but so far NYSED, the Regents, and the Governor have not hesitated to demonize teachers without worrying about the impact.

The bottom line is this: As a parent you can opt your own kids out (and NYSUT supports your doing so) but as a classroom teacher you should avoid discussing opt-out in any form in your classroom and should not, at any time, say anything that can be construed as promoting it to your students’ parents.

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