Regents reverse course on opt-out penalties

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The State Education Department last week announced that it would pull back on plans to penalize schools in which high numbers of students boycott state standardized tests.

The decision came after the education department and Board of Regents received almost 2,000 comments from activist groups, parents and educators concerned about the state punishing districts academically and financially if 95 percent of students did not participate in the tests.

Schools with 95 percent participation rates on Long Island — considered the birthplace of the test-boycott movement — are scarce.

On Monday, a committee of the Board of Regents unanimously approved rescinding some of the penalties. The full board approved the changes on Tuesday, after which a 30-day public comment period began.

The Regents nixed one of the most controversial penalties, which would have forced some schools and districts to set aside part of their Title I funding — federal money for schools with high numbers of students from low-income families — to improve test participation rates.

Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia was quoted Monday night in the Albany Times Union saying that the penalty was misunderstood, but caused “too much stress and tension.”

The initial plan also called for schools with “excessive percentages of students” opting out of the tests to be placed under public school registration review — which could eventually lead to their closure.

State officials, in documents attached to the new amendments, responded to criticism of the registration-review provision by arguing that the education department had similar powers for over than a decade.

Still, the provision was struck entirely.

Also, according to the amendments under discussion on Monday, schools would no longer be required to enact a participation improvement plan if the schools’ weighted average achievement index is above the state average — even if the school has high opt-out rates.

Elia had said that the penalties were needed in order to bring the state in line with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which requires 95 percent of students to take some form of standardized test, but leaves to the states how to get to that 95 percent.

North Bellmore mother Jeanette Deutermann founded the group Long Island Opt Out, which helped spur the nationwide movement of student test boycotts. In May, she called the proposed regulations “absolute insanity,”

Officials from New York State United Teachers decried the proposed penalties as “a direct frontal assault on the rights of parents to opt-out their children.”

NYSUT officials added, in a May 29 letter to Elia, that the regulations would make it all but impossible for schools to exit comprehensive or targeted support and improvement status if 95 percent of students don’t take the tests — regardless of the school’s academic performance.

On Monday, before the Board of Regents meeting, Deutermann said she was pleased with the apparent course reversal by the education department.

“The Board of Regents has clearly listened to feedback from the public that overwhelmingly rejected [Elia’s] plan for punishing districts whose parents have chosen to opt out of NYS assessments,” Deutermann said. “Thankfully, our Board of Regents took the necessary steps to walk back the plans of the commissioner by rejecting the plans to reallocate Title I money into marketing campaigns for flawed assessments, and rejecting the plan to allow the commissioner to have unilateral power to convert public schools into charter schools.”

Deutermann added that she would also advocate that the language on participation improvement plans be cleaned up to make sure that only districts that “cherry-pick” students to exclude from testing are identified for improvement.

The complete amendments, along with a summary of public comment received by the education department, can be read at https://bit.ly/2NQq7KN.