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Plan to curb boycott of standardized tests creates a backlash

Eileen Buckley
WBFO News file photo
New York State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia just started her job in July, long after the opt out movement was in full swing in the state.

The New York state education commissioner’s plans to quell the testing opt out movement is getting some back lash from some Republicans in the legislature, including a former teacher.  

At a recent conference held by the teacher’s group Educators for Excellence, New York State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia says she plans to try to convince parents not have their children repeat this year’s boycott of standardized tests associated with the Common Core learning standards, which resulted in 20 percent of students statewide opting out of the tests.

“I think opt out is something that is not reasonable,” Elia told the conference.

Elia told the group that schools with very high opt-out rates are put at a disadvantage, because they don’t have the data to help children who may be struggling with specific learning skills.

The commissioner says she hopes she can explain that to school leaders, teachers and parents over the coming months, who she says might not be aware of that.

Elia told Politico New York that she’s putting together a “tool kit” to help school superintendents reverse the boycotts in their schools, and has been talking to the education department’s legal staff, in order to provide the school administrators with more information on laws requiring that the exams be administered.  Those remarks set off some lawmakers.

Assemblyman Jim Tedisco spent a decade as a special education teacher in the Schenectady school system.

“I call this the goon squad,” said Tedisco. “They are going to intimidate the parents.”

Assemblyman Bill Nojay, a Republican form the Rochester area who describes himself as libertarian leaning, was never a teacher, but his mother was one. He says education officials should be listening to the parents instead.

“The parents, the teachers and the students have got more than enough information,” Nojay said. “They don’t need somebody who is new to New York state to say ‘listen to me, I know better than you do.’”  

A spokesman for Elia says the tool kit has been misunderstood, and it will not be a means to coerce parents into having their children take the tests. Spokesman Dennis Tompkins  says it will instead be suggestions and information school superintendents can use to better inform parents about the value of the assessments. The materials might include, for example, a sample parent report to show parents the kind of feedback they would receive if their children take the tests.

Tedisco is the sponsor of a bill to allow parents to opt their children out of Common Core associated standardized tests. He says the larger issue is whether New York has become too reliant on the exams for students and to evaluate teachers .   

“Use them as a diagnostic tool,” Tedisco said. “But not  to stigmatize kids or stigmatize educators.”

Assemblymen Tedisco and Nojay are in the minority in the Assembly, where Democrats are in control. Many Democrats are also concerned about the tests, and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie has said he won’t judge parents who have their kids boycott the tests.

The Democratic Leader of the Senate, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, is also a former teacher. She voted against a budget bill that requires new teacher performance reviews to rely more heavily on standardized tests. Stewart-Cousins, who has not taken a position on whether parents should opt their children out of the tests, spoke on the subject earlier this year.

“It’s sending a message,” said Stewart-Cousins who said she’d rather “create an environment which is focusing on learning and not just chronic test taking."

Whether the boycott movement grows in the new school year or  education officials can successfully talk parents out of opting out, it’s more clear that schools with high test boycott rates won’t be penalized by losing federal or state monies. Both Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Regents chancellor have said that won’t happen.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.