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Opt out movement complicates teacher evaluations

WBFO News file photo

A new school year is starting soon, and education officials say they will try to reverse a growing movement of parents having their children opt out of standardized tests.  The boycott could jeopardize a new system of teacher evaluations.

The evaluations are based on the exams and were supposed to begin later this fall.

Earlier in August, the state education department released new figures on the number of children who did not take the standardized tests associated with the Common Core learning standards. Statewide, the opt out number was 20 percent, but  it was closer to one third of students upstate, and 40 percent on Long Island.

The latest version of teacher performance reviews will be based more heavily on the tests. The fourth change in teacher evaluation requirements in five years was approved by lawmakers in the state budget at the urging of Governor Cuomo.

A spokesman for the teachers union, Carl Korn with New York State United Teachers, says teachers have long complained that the current tests are poorly designed, and cannot be used to accurately measure teacher performance. He says now, with many students skipping the tests,  a deeply flawed evaluation system, will be even more difficult to carry out. 

“It’s been rendered more volatile and more unstable,” Korn said. 

The state education department recently signed a contract with a new testing company, and Korn says teachers are hopeful that  they’ll be able to work more cooperatively with new company, Questar.

If teachers are more positive about the tests, there could be fewer opt outs in the future.

Education Commissioner Mary Ellen Elia, who began her job in July, said in a briefing earlier in August that a key focus in the coming months will be to try to get parents whose children boycotted the tests back on board.

“We’ve got to do a better job of getting out and working with concerns that people have ,” Elia said.

Commissioner Elia says 900,000 kids did take the tests, and the data will be used to figure out which students need more help meeting the new standards.

The State Board of Regents, which hired Elia, is offering a waiver for school districts that find, with all of the confusion surrounding the tests, that they can’t meet a deadline of this November  to complete new teacher reviews.

Governor Cuomo has said he hopes the waivers will be the exception and not the rule. But the Assembly Speaker, Carl Heastie, says he would not be troubled if half the schools across the state were granted waivers and given another year to design the new teacher evaluations.

“When we discussed this there was a concern about the time frame of how to implement these evaluations,” Heastie said. 

Assembly Democrats are allies of the teachers union, though Republicans who rule the State Senate have also expressed concern about the tight deadline.

Speaker Heastie says he won’t judge parents who decide to have their children skip the tests.

“I think it’s the parents sending us a message,” said Heastie, who says there  are “consequences potentially” from the boycott.

It’s possible that federal officials could sanction schools with high opt out rates, by with holding some funds.  Commissioner Elia says she’s been talking to federal officials, but so far has not taken a position on whether or not schools should be punished.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.