Head of education opposes opt-out punishment

“We are writing today to formally inform the district of our decision to refuse to allow our child (insert name here), to participate in …”

This is the beginning of the template letter on the New York state Allies for Public Education website with which parents can refuse state tests for their children in grades 3 through 8. A notice like this was submitted for more than 20 percent of state students eligible for the standardized tests in 2016, making New York again one of the highest opt-out states in the country.

This also puts local school districts on a potential chopping block for federal funding.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, reauthorized as federal law in December 2015, includes stipulations that could revoke federal funding for schools in states that have less than a 95 percent participation rate. New York’s Education Department has fired back at the regulations, hoping to create more freedom for state-governed testing.

State Education Commissioner Mary Ellen Elia has stood against these reforms in partial support of the opt-out movement. She has publicly encouraged parents to let their children take the tests, but she says it remains an individual freedom that shouldn’t be punished.

Elia challenged federal education Secretary and former state Commissioner John King’s proposal to restrict funding for schools with high opt-out rates during a recent media address.

“Parents should make a decision to have their kids take (the exams), but it’s their decision. Children should not be penalized for that decision,” she said.

Several school districts in the North Country had opt-out rates above the state average in the 2015-16 school year: for the English language arts tests, Saranac Lake had 41 percent, AuSable Valley 69 percent, Lake Placid 30 percent – far beyond federal requirements.

Franklin County school districts averaged a combined 40 percent of students opting out of ELA and math tests in the 2015-16 school year, according to data from the state Education Department’s Office of State Assessment. The lowest rate came from the Tupper Lake Central School District, at 5 percent for ELA and 8 percent for math. The highest rate came from the Chateaugay Central School District, at 65 and 69, respectively.

Essex County school districts had a lower combined average at about 19 percent. There were high opt-out areas, such as Elizabethtown-Lewis (42 percent ELA, 48 percent math) and Newcomb (53 percent for both), but averages are offset by Crown Point and Keene, each of which had zero opt-outs in math or ELA.

Soon after ESSA passed in December 2015, the U.S. Department of Education sent a letter to chief state school officers, including Elia, to emphasize state requirements and potential consequences of inadequate participation rates. It outlines suggestions for state education commissioners to address opt-outs, including, but not limited to: lowering the rating of underperforming districts in the state’s accountability system, withholding state aid, and counting students who opt out of tests as non-proficient performers in accountability determinations. Accountability systems in New York are used to evaluate teaching effectiveness in schools and determine districts in need of assistance.

The letter also says the USDE may “take enforcement action” against states with inadequate participation rates.

On Aug. 1, Elia responded to federal mandates with a letter to the USDE that pleads for more adaptability and state control of accountability systems among other concerns resulting from the ESSA. In the letter, she calls some provisions for states in the federal act “overly prescriptive, onerous and/or, in a few instances, unworkable.

“Just as NYS law requires that no school district shall make any student or promotion or placement decision based solely or primarily on student performance on the Grades 3-8 ELA and math examinations, there should be no consequences for any individual student based upon whether that student participates or does not participate in state assessments,” Elia writes.

“We believe these requirements are inconsistent with the intent of the law to allow States to have broad discretion to determine the consequences when schools and (local education agencies) are unable to meet participation rate requirements,” she continued. “We do not believe the law requires that States must at minimum take actions that are equally rigorous to those identified by the USDE, nor do we believe that an improvement plan must be required of schools and LEAs after a single failure to meet participation rate requirements.”

King found himself in the center of public debate for quickly implementing Common Core-compliant curricula and tests while serving in Elia’s position from 2011 to 2014. A month before he left for his federal position, the state teachers’ union had called for his resignation, according to a May 2015 article in the New York Times.