talking testing

Opt-out movement unlikely to provoke sanctions from state, this time around

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
A protest in 2014 at P.S. 321 in Park Slope against the state English exams.

In less than two months, students across New York state will pick up their pencils and sit for math and English state assessments.

But what will the state do if, like last year, thousands of families decide that their kids will refuse to take the tests?

This year, it appears the answer is nothing. Though a federal mandate that 95 percent of students take state assessments still applies to New York, members of the Board of Regents indicated this week they are not inclined to impose sanctions on schools or districts with a low participation rates. They are, however, looking to craft a long-term plan.

“We made a statement that we would not withhold funds from districts,” Chancellor Merryl Tisch said Monday about the board’s position last year. “I don’t see this language as being any different than what our response was originally.”

The discussion comes after 20 percent of students statewide opted out of taking the assessments last year in an unprecedented rejection of state policy. Since then, the state education department has been under pressure from federal officials, and New York’s new education commissioner has embarked on a mission to convince more families to take the tests.

Instead of threatening sanctions, Commissioner MaryEllen Elia has preferred to address concerns about the tests themselves. She announced that the exams would be shorter, and that students would have unlimited time to complete them to help alleviate pressure. She has also toured the state to spread her message to parents.

“Much of what I heard as I went across the state was that, in fact, parents didn’t know some of the information that might influence them,” Elia said.

Whether that will make a difference remains to be seen. But the state has more time to create a system that enforces the 95 percent participation rule under the new federal education law. The law allows states to decide the consequences when enough students don’t participate, but it doesn’t take effect until the 2016-17 school year. In the meantime, state officials say they want to think carefully about a long-term plan.

Developing that plan is “very challenging,” said Ira Schwartz, New York’s assistant state education commissioner. On the one hand, the state wants to avoid allowing schools and districts to manipulate data by helping low-performing students avoid the test under the guise of opting out. On the other hand, he said, the state does not want to penalize schools that are doing well because a cohort of families chooses not to take the test.

Though Regents are wary of cracking down on their own this year, New York still faces the threat of federal sanctions. The state education department received a letter from the U.S. Department of Education in December warning that it could be in for a reduction in funding for failure to comply with the law.

It is unclear how serious these threats are. Elia said that the letter shouldn’t be taken lightly, but said that she hopes her efforts to tweak the tests and communicate with parents will be enough to secure funding.

“We’re talking about considerable lack of funds if in fact they chose to do that,” Elia said about the threats of federal sanctions. “I don’t think they will.”

Opt-out leaders have said they are not satisfied with the changes that Elia has made. They have promised to continue boycotting state tests, and expect the movement to grow this year.

If the opt-out movement does remain a force, and the federal government decides to pull funding it controls, it could affect the state’s neediest schools, Regent Beverly Ouderkirk noted Monday, since schools with a large share of low-income students rely on federal Title I funding.

For now, schools will be receiving mixed messages, Regent Betty Rosa acknowledged.

“They’re caught between a law and mandate, and parents who say they have this choice,” she said.

Test tweaks

Tennessee will halve science and social studies tests for its youngest students

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen announced Wednesday plans to slim down science and social studies assessments for third- and fourth-graders as she seeks to respond to complaints of over-testing in Tennessee.

McQueen has been mulling over that option since meeting last summer with her testing task force. The State Department of Education received more public feedback on testing during the last eight months while developing the state’s new plan for its schools in response to a new federal education law.

Tennessee already has eliminated a state test for eighth- and tenth-graders, as well as shortened TNReady, the state’s end-of-year tests for math and reading.

It’s uncertain just how significant the latest reductions are, since McQueen also said that some “components” would be added to English tests in those grades.  

And the trimming, while significant, falls short of a suggestion to eliminate the tests altogether. Federal law does not require tests in science and social studies for those grades, like it does for math and English.

Parents and educators have become increasingly vocal about the amount of testing students are undergoing. The average Tennessee third-grader, for instance, currently spends more than 11 hours taking end-of-course tests in math, English, social studies and science. That doesn’t include practice tests and screeners through the state’s 3-year-old intervention program.

McQueen noted that more changes could be on the horizon. Her testing task force has also considered eliminating or reducing TNReady for 11th-graders because they already are required to take the ACT college-entrance exam. “We will continue to evaluate all of our options for streamlining assessments in the coming years, including in the 11th grade,” she wrote in a blog post.

McQueen also announced that the state is tweaking its schools plan to reduce the role that chronic absenteeism will play in school evaluation scores.

The federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires states to evaluate schools based off of a measure that’s not directly tied to test scores. Tennessee officials have selected chronic absenteeism, which is defined as missing 10 percent of school days for any reason, including absences or suspension. McQueen said the measure will be changed to count for 10 percent of a school’s final grade, down from 20 percent for K-8 schools and 15 percent for high schools.

Some local district officials had raised concerns that absenteeism was out of the control of schools.

early adopters

Here are the 25 districts committing to taking TNReady online this spring

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

One year after Tennessee’s first attempt at online testing fizzled, 25 out of 140 Tennessee school districts have signed up to try again.

About 130 districts were eligible to test online this year.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said Thursday the number is what she expected as districts prepare to administer the state’s TNReady assessment in April.

Although all districts will make the switch to online testing by 2019 for middle and high school students, they had the option to forge ahead this year with their oldest students.

The Department of Education is staggering its transition to online testing — a lesson learned last year when most of the state tried to do it all at once and the online platform buckled on the first day. As a result, the department fired its testing company, derailing the state’s assessment program, and later hired  Questar as its new test maker.

Districts piloted Questar’s online platform last fall, and had until Wednesday to decide whether to forge ahead with online testing for their high school students this spring or opt for paper-and-pencil tests.

McQueen announced the state’s new game plan for TNReady testing in January and said she is confident that the new platform will work.

While this year was optional for high schools, all high schools will participate in 2018. Middle and elementary schools will make the switch in 2019, though districts will have the option of administering the test on paper to its youngest students.

Districts opting in this spring are:

  • Alvin C. York Institute
  • Bedford County
  • Bledsoe County
  • Blount County
  • Bristol City
  • Campbell County
  • Cannon County
  • Cheatham County
  • Clay County
  • Cocke County
  • Coffee County
  • Cumberland County
  • Grundy County
  • Hamilton County
  • Hancock County
  • Knox County
  • Jackson-Madison County
  • Moore County
  • Morgan County
  • Putnam County
  • Scott County
  • Sullivan County
  • Trousdale County
  • Washington County
  • Williamson County