Opt-out advocates say test changes are not enough

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Upcoming changes in state English and math tests, and federal reminders of funding consequences if too many students skip them, are not swaying some local parents who have been active in the “opt-out” movement.

One parent noted a recent letter to the U.S. Department of Education from a statewide community/parent group which said the federal stance could trigger even larger opt-out numbers when the tests for grades 3-8 are administered in April.

The government actions including state changes in the tests are “just a...distraction” from the “bigger problem, which is the content” of the tests, Whitesboro school district parent Dave Lupia said today. The tests are “just not age-appropriate,” and it has been “proven time and time again,” he added.

“Nothing has changed” regarding concerns about the tests, said Lupia, who has three children including two within the grade 3-8 testing range. Until there are changes, he said, education departments are “always going to face the rallying cry of the parents.” He said “discussions already abound...already public forums....Parents are becoming educated sooner this year than last year.”

In addition, Oriskany school district parent Randy Bates said today there is “still a lack of trust in all of this,” adding he does not trust Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia. He said he is undecided whether his two children will be opted out of this year’s tests. But if he “starts hearing threats, they definitely won’t take it,” he said in discussing the government issues.

The U.S. Education Department is not relenting on requirements to test students on math and language arts abilities, according to an Associated Press report. The department has reminded some states, including New York, that federal funding could be at stake if too many children skip the annual assessments, the AP said. A letter last month from the department reminded state education officials that the requirement to test at least 95 percent of grade 3-8 students is still in place.

However, testing opponents they’re not giving up, and are looking for even more to sit out the upcoming tests, the AP said.

Regarding procedures in New York State, time limits will no longer be placed on the statewide tests, Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia announced Wednesday. In addition to not timing students, the tests will be shorter — although not significantly so, say many educators and parents — but given over the same number of days, she said.

In New York, 20 percent of students did not take the tests last year, the AP said. Some percentages were far higher in local school districts, including 50 percent in Rome; 60 percent in Camden; and 74 percent in New York Mills among several that exceeded the 20 percent average. Bates said of the upcoming state test changes, “whatever’s happening...it’s all because we said...enough is enough.” While he has not yet “really seen a whole lot of it” regarding details on the changes, “we’re finally starting to get some stuff done.”

As for the U.S. Education Department notifications about federal funding impacts, Lupia said they are “still a reminder...first and foremost...just a blanket threat.” He referred to a letter from the NYS Allies for Public Education to a U.S. Education Department advisor.

The letter said “Don’t be surprised if these attempts at coercing states and districts to disregard parental rights leads to increasing our resolve and boosting our opt-out numbers.” It also said “you simply do not have the authority or more importantly the support to change funding formulas for districts.”

Among other state-level changes with the tests, the state replaced test vendor Pearson with Questar to develop new test questions with more teacher input, the AP said. Test results also will be kept out of student transcripts and teacher evaluations through 2018.

Elia said she was confident their plans would improve participation, the AP said.

A statewide parent and educator group last year disputed that the federal funding is at risk, and some local education officials said it was unclear whether federal funding would be lost although there might be restrictions on its use.

Lupia and Bates were among parents who last April issued a statement objecting to what they said was an Oriskany school district practice in which children whose parents refused to have them take the state tests had to sit with nothing to do during the exams.

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