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NY education commissioner says parents have the right to opt out their kids from tests

Eileen Buckley
WBFO News file photo

New York State Education Commissioner Mary Ellen is clarifying her stand on the opt out movement in an interview with New York State Public Radio & Television.

This year, 20 percent of children boycotted the third through eight grade math and English tests associated with the Common Core learning standards.

Commissioner MaryEllen Elia says parents absolutely have the right to opt their kids out of state standardized tests, but she says she still wants to talk to them to try to bring them back into the fold.

“We haven’t done enough communication,” Elia said. “But if parents understand it and they still want their child to opt out, that certainly is their right.”

Elia received some blowback when she talked about a “tool kit” she’s putting together to help school administrators in schools where the boycott rate was high, including talking to the state education department’s lawyers, as first reported in Politico.

Some lawmakers, including Assemblyman Jim Tedisco of Schenectady, a former teacher, viewed that as a warning. Tedisco, speaking last week, called it a “goon squad” that would try to intimidate parents.

Elia says her remarks were misinterpreted. She says school superintendents with high test boycott rates have requested that she put together resources to help them reverse the trend. She says the superintendents wanted her to talk to state Education Department lawyers on the legalities of administering the unpopular tests.

“Superintendents have asked me ‘Is it the law? Exactly what does this mean for us? What are the ramifications of this in terms of the federal law,” said Elia who said the “logical” response was to ask her department’s attorneys for answers.

“This is not a threat,” she said.

Robert Lowry, the spokesman for the New York State Council of School Superintendents, says some superintendents did indeed ask for help. Others are trying on their own to convince students to participate. But he says many more believe that the tests themselves are fundamentally flawed.

“The real issue is that the tests have to change,” Lowry said. “Parents are upset for a reason.”

Lowry says the preparations was not well thought out, and schools get too little information on results too late.

Elia admits the current tests have problems.

“I’ve had teachers tell me the tests are too long, I’ve had them say they don’t think they’re matched to the standards,” said Elia. “I think that they are long.”

The first week that the new education commissioner began her job, in July, the state Board of Regents announced it was not renewing a contract with the testing company Pearson and beginning a new arrangement with the company Questar.

Elia says teachers will have more say in the new tests, similar to the older traditions of New York’s own Regents exams. But she says that will take time, and it will be the 2017-18 school year before the new tests are fully ready.

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.