State may crack down on opting out


The State Board of Regents is set this month to review new regulations that could penalize districts that have significant numbers of students opting out of standardized tests.

Portions of a 95-page document published last month by the State Education Department indicate that the state would like to amend parts of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act in New York. Under the proposed changes, the state would require new “interventions” for districts with less than 95 percent of students participating in state tests.

If the changes go into effect, school districts in Bellmore and Merrick — part of the epicenter of the “opt-out” movement — would be particularly affected. In recent years, close to three-quarters of Bellmore-Merrick Central High School District students have opted out of both the English Language Arts and math tests.

Central High School District Superintendent John DeTommaso last year called the region’s high opt-out numbers “an incredible movement by parents,” and said that participation rates — and scores on standardized tests — are unfair measures of how a school is performing.

“To me, it doesn’t give a true picture of not only the child’s performance, but of a building’s performance,” DeTommaso said. “There’s more to it than that. There’s a heck of a lot more to it.”

“I think it’s parents’ prerogative to make the decision of whether their student is going to take a test or not,” he added.

Officials from New York State United Teachers decried the proposed regulations last week, calling them “a direct frontal assault on the rights of parents to opt-out their children.”

Under existing state law, schools with less than 95 percent test participation are required to create plans to boost participation. The proposed rules, however, would require low-participation districts to conduct their own “audits” and create committees to develop their improvement plans.

Starting with the 2020-21 school year’s participation results, districts that fail to improve their participation would face a state audit, and schools that use Title I funds — federal money for schools with high numbers of students from low-income families — may have to spend some of that money on increasing test participation.

Also, the proposed rules would change the way school performance is calculated — putting more weight on the number of tested students. According to NYSUT officials, this would lower the score for schools with high opt-out rates, and put them in danger of being labeled Comprehensive Support and Improvement or Targeted Support and Improvement schools (see sidebar).

Further, NYSUT officials added, in a May 29 letter to Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, the regulations would make it all but impossible for schools to exit CSI or TSI status if 95 percent of students don’t take the tests — regardless of the school’s performance.

“This has the perverse effect of making participation rates the most important factor in what was intended to be a multiple-measure accountability system less reliant on state assessments,” the NYSUT letter, signed by President Andrew Pallotta and Executive Vice President Jolene DiBrango, said. “All of these provisions should be modified or eliminated, so that no school is penalized as a result of parents exercising their legal right to opt-out their children of state assessments.”