State Test Opt-outs: "Just say no" influences policy

State Test Opt-outs: "Just say no" influences policy

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Monday, November 2, 2015

Dissatisfaction with the NYS Education Department’s testing regime led many parents to allow their children to “opt-out” of state exams last spring. With State Education Commissioner John King gone—replaced by former Florida educator Mary Ellen Elia—Governor Cuomo is calling for a reboot in time for his State of the State in January. Elia has been touring the state gathering feedback from parents and educators. While noting that the tests are not optional under state law, she recently announced that next year’s math test would have fewer multiple choice questions and the English language arts (ELA) test would include fewer reading passages. And the state has selected a new company to develop tests, including computer-based tests in 2017.

Why do some choose to opt out?

The opt-out movement is a diverse coalition, which explains its size and rapid expansion.

  • Dissatisfaction with testing is a longstanding complaint of progressives, convinced that any “standardized” assessment fails to capture the unique achievements of individual children.
  • Most teachers believe in assessment, but are concerned about imperfect tests that influence how money flows to schools or, even more so, how individual teachers are graded themselves and rewarded. The new teacher evaluation system, as modified in the 2015 budget process, raised the stakes for teachers, which prompted the NYS United Teachers (NYSUT) to vigorously encourage parents to opt-out.
  • Some parents want to shield their children from unnecessary anxiety if they become convinced that the tests are seriously flawed.
  • Many administrators, teachers and parents worry about the time testing can take away from instruction. If they don’t have confidence in the tests, they see any time spent on them as wasted.
  • Finally, the Common Core (CC) standards have become a magnet for criticism from both ends of the political spectrum, although for different reasons. To CC opponents, anything linked to the standards is tainted.

2015 became a “perfect storm” for the state tests for many reasons:

  • Many think the Common Core rollout was poorly handled—State Ed expected teachers and students to move to an entirely different “scope and sequence” of material without any “ramp-up,” e.g. 6th graders were expected to tackle CC math that was built upon K-5 CC preparation.
  • Governor Cuomo insisted on more tightly tying teacher evaluations to the results of the new tests. This triggered the anger of teachers, their union and school administrators alike.
  • The teacher evaluation process had spawned a raft of district-designed tests. Layered on the state tests, parents felt that testing had become all-consuming.

What happened in the Mid-Hudson Valley?

The opt-out movement captured a lot of adherents in the Mid-Hudson Valley. Topping the list is ultra-progressive New Paltz. Less than 40% of students took the ELA exam in that district. Of 38 school districts in Dutchess, Orange, and Ulster counties, 15 had at least one-third of students opt out.

2015 "Opt Out" Share for Dutchess Schools (ELA)

2015 "Opt Out" Share for Orange County (ELA)

2015 "Opt Out" Share for Ulster County (ELA)

What does the opt-out movement mean for results?

Given the number and share of opt-outs in 2015, the state’s effort at tracking student achievement has become more difficult. We don’t know how students who opted out would have performed in 2015 so we also don’t know whether performance as a whole has improved or not. Are 2015’s numbers biased up—because low achieving students skipped the test—or are they biased down, because the high achieving students opted out?

Some speculated that the kind of activism that would prompt a family to choose to opt-out would be more prevalent among higher income households. Indeed, the opt-out rate in New York’s high poverty cities was significantly lower than in more prosperous, suburban districts. In the Mid-Hudson Valley, Poughkeepsie and Newburgh saw only 6% and 7%, respectively, opt out. Given the strong association between socioeconomic status and academic achievement, we would expect, then, that opt-outs achieved at a higher rate. This turns out to be false. NYS Education reported 2014 test achievement for students opting out of the 2015 tests. In the Mid-Hudson region, the 2015 opt-outs achieved at a substantially lower rate in 2014 than the students who took the tests in 2015.

In Dutchess County, students opting out in 2015 had a 2014 pass rate of only 18%, far lower than the county average of 29%. The same pattern is apparent in Orange—22% of opt-outs passed in 2014, in contrast to an overall pass rate of 31%—and in Ulster, where only 16% of opt-outs passed in 2014 v. 26% of all students.

Where does the opt-out movement lead?

The response of the Governor, the Board of Regents, and the Education Commissioner shows that the message sent by the opt-outs was clearly heard. The question for the 2016 tests is whether the civil disobedience of opting out will ebb or flow in response. If the movement grows, it will be hard to justify the continued disruption and expense of statewide testing. New York’s respected state standards—which existed long before Common Core—will be at risk. Will every district go back to developing its own standards and its own curricula? Will student achievement no longer play a role in evaluating teacher effectiveness? We’ll learn more next summer.

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