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Ed Groups Worry Over Proposed Federal Sanctions For High Opt-Out Rate

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  Education groups, dismayed by the federal education secretary’s threat to punish schools in New York with high opt-out rates for standardized tests, say he’s re-igniting controversy that state education officials have been trying to calm for the past year.

Education Secretary John King was New York’s education commissioner until about a year ago. Under King’s tenure in the state, controversy over the implementation of the Common Core learning standards escalated. It led to a boycott movement for the third- through eighth-grade standardized tests that resulted in about one-fifth of students opting out last year. This year, a slightly higher percentage of students skipped the tests—22 percent, compared to 20 percent in 2015.

The new state education commissioner, Mary Ellen Elia, tried to minimize the boycott. Elia issued a recorded statement late last Friday, when the test results were released. She tried to stick to the positive, saying the test results improved over 2015.

“We’re very pleased with the performance this year,” said Elia, who noted English scores improved by 6.6 percent and math results by 1 percent.

Nevertheless, the test results still show nearly two-thirds of third- through eighth-grade students are less than proficient in English and math.

“We obviously have work to do,” Elia said.

The boycott could have some adverse consequences for schools with high numbers of students skipping the tests. King said in July that schools where fewer than 95 percent of students take the tests should be labeled as low-performing and possibly face fines or even a takeover.

The rules would be part of President Barack Obama’s new Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaces No Child Left Behind.

Groups, including the New York State School Boards Association, and the New York State Council of School Superintendents, say the sanctions are a terrible idea. They say they were initially excited about the Every Student Succeeds Act, because Obama and his aides said it would give states and local school districts more control on how to run classes and assess students.

But Bonnie Ryan Russell, president of the New York State PTA, said schools now could be punished with a decrease in federal funding for things that are out of their control.

“It’s really up to parents to make that decision, whether or not their child takes an assessment, and they have every right to choose one way or another, ” Ryan Russell said.

The threat of federal sanctions comes after a year when Elia  and a newly configured state Board of Regents worked to calm the controversy that led to the opt-out movement. In 2017, the state will stop  using a corporation that makes up all the tests’ questions and answers and has hired another company that allows teachers to have more input into the questions on the exams. They’ve delayed a new law that would judge teachers’ performance based on test results and also shortened the tests and given students more time to complete them.

Ryan Russell said the new wrinkle threatens to re-ignite the controversy.

“We’ve had two years of change. We were hoping that the change might be slowing down,” Ryan Russell said. “We just have to keep our focus on the child.”

The PTA, School Boards Association and other groups also are objecting to a new requirement that will penalize schools that don’t graduate enough students from high school in four years. They say it’s better to use a longer timetable, like five or six years, because students with special needs may take longer to graduate.

The PTA, along with other groups, have written letters to King, asking him to reconsider the proposed sanctions. 

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.