Brooklyn Boro

Thousands skip NY tests, raising questions about evaluations

April 17, 2015 By Karen Matthews, Carolyn Thompson Associated Press
Kristen Couse walks with her son, Wile, on the playground at Public School 261 on Thursday in Brooklyn. According to Couse her fifth-grade son and the majority of his classmates are opting-out of a state-mandated testing program. Some New York school districts are reporting that 60 to 70 percent of students boycotted this week's statewide English tests. AP Photos/Mark Lennihan
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Some New York school districts are reporting that 60 to 70 percent of students did not take this week’s mandated English tests, raising questions about how the growing “opt-out” movement may affect federal funds as well as teacher evaluations that are supposed to be pegged to the tests.

The state Education Department says official numbers for how many pupils took the statewide assessments won’t be released until this summer. But a group called United to Counter the Core, which is critical of the tests, said Thursday that more than 155,000 children boycotted the English tests that were administered TuesdayWednesday and Thursday.

The number is based on head counts from some school districts as well as reports from parents and advocacy groups. More than 1.1 million New York state schoolchildren in grades three through eight were supposed to take this week’s English tests and are supposed to take three days of math tests next week.

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Anti-testing hotbeds included districts upstate, in the lower Hudson Valley and on Long Island. The New York City Department of Education did not release opt-out estimates, but parents at some schools said more students skipped the tests than took them.

Parents opposed to the tests say schools are focusing on test prep to the detriment of a richer curriculum. Some also are critical of the Common Core learning standards that New York’s tests have been based on since 2013.

The opt-out movement grew this year partly because of battles between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and teachers’ unions over how much of a teacher’s annual evaluation should be based on the tests, with Cuomo suggesting that test scores should count for 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation.

Brooklyn parent Kristen Couse said the tests “are being used to assess our teachers, which I think is ridiculous.”

Couse said her son took last year’s tests but when he brought home test-prep materials she concluded that the questions were poorly written.

“He would look at them and say, ‘I think it could be A or C,’ and I would think he was exactly right,” Couse said. “It was ambiguous.”

Couse’s son opted out of this year’s English tests and so did 75 to 80 percent of his fellow fifth-graders at Public School 261, she estimated.

West Seneca Superintendent Mark Crawford said his suburban Buffalo district saw nearly 70 percent of students sit out the tests.

“If the opt-outs are great enough, at what point does somebody say this is absurd?” Crawford asked. “Look at the level of the withdrawal of consent by the parents across New York state and do you still as a reasonable person think this is the way to proceed?”

In Rockville Centre on Long Island, Superintendent William H. Johnson said 60 percent of his district’s 1,168 third-through-eighth graders did not take the tests.

Johnson said students at an elementary school he visited Thursday were sitting at their lunch tables with books and crayons in lieu of being tested. “It was very quiet,” he said.

Federal law requires states to assess students in grades three through eight each year and mandates that 95 percent of students in each school participate.

State Education Department spokeswoman Jeanne Beattie said the U.S. Department of Education has made it clear that when a district fails to ensure participation in the tests, the state education agency is expected to consider imposing sanctions, including, in some cases, withholding funding.

“What sanctions to impose must be decided on a case by case basis, taking into account the degree and length of time the district has failed to meet participation rate requirements and the reasons for such failure,” she said in an emailed response.

Some 49,000 New York state pupils sat out last year’s English tests and 67,000 skipped the math tests.

It remains unclear how teachers with few students taking the tests will be evaluated. In order for a classroom to be statistically valid, each teacher needs at least 16 students to take one test or eight students taking both the English and math tests.

“If fewer than 16 students take the test in a class taught by a teacher who would normally have used a state-provided growth score as part of his or her evaluation, a backup student learning objective will be used instead,” Beattie said.

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