New York officials soften potential penalties for schools where many students opt out of tests

New York school districts where lots of students sit out annual state tests will not have to set aside federal funding under new rules released Friday by the state’s education department.

The changes are a win for the state teachers union, and activists and parents within the opt-out movement, who had previously criticized New York’s implementation of a federal mandate that 95 percent of students take the state’s annual reading and math exams.

“As a result of today’s actions, schools with high opt-out rates will be treated more fairly — a victory for the hundreds of NYSUT members who opposed the draft regulations and defended parents’ right to opt their children out without penalty or pressure,” the state teachers union said in a press release.

The new regulations, which are not final, will not likely have a major effect in New York City, where opt-out rates have remained relatively low. Although New York State has been the epicenter of the test-boycott movement — with roughly one in five students refusing to take the tests, according to the most recent data — less than 4 percent of the city’s students declined to take them.

The new rules soften several aspects of the state’s regulations, which are part of its plan to implement the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. Under the initial rules, districts that had high opt-out rates for five years could have to set aside Title I funding, which is earmarked for high-poverty schools, to improve their testing rates. The new proposal nixes that entirely.

State officials softened other aspects of their rules requiring schools to create improvement plans if they fall below the 95 percent threshold. Schools with average or higher test scores will not have to come up with those plans, state officials said.

“Following a thoughtful and productive discussion and considering the comments received, I am confident these changes will benefit students across the state,” State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said in a statement.

Ian Rosenblum, executive director of The Education Trust-NY, a group that argues state tests are an important measure of student learning, said the changes seemed like a “reasonable balance.”

“As we evaluate the new language, we will remain focused on ensuring that there are protections in place to prevent schools from systemically excluding historically under-served groups of students from state assessments,” he said in a statement.

In a revision to a separate element of the state’s ESSA regulations, officials announced a change in how they can intervene to turn around low-performing schools. Under the new rules, the state will no longer be able to ask districts to convert struggling schools into charter schools.

The new rules are expected to be presented at the state’s Board of Regents meeting next week, and, following a public comment period, are likely to come up for a final vote in December.