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.