To opt out or not to opt out?
With the first day of state tests looming Tuesday, educators say they're answering more questions this year from parents who want to know whether their school-age kids really have to take the tests
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One Hudson Valley parent summed up the options laid out by her child's principal this way. The child would not be forced to actually take the state test, but in the event he chooses not to, he would still be required to sit at a desk and stare at the thing for several hours.
Other parents are reporting online that their schools will let children read quietly during the tests, if they refuse to participate.
State officials are warning of consequences for schools if students opt out en masse.
Students in grade 3-8 will take English Language Arts tests Tuesday and math tests later this month. The tests will be used not only to gauge the progress of students but also in evaluating teachers and schools.
The 2013 tests are harder than previous versions, educators say. They test the new Common Core Curriculum, which was introduced into New York's schools in September. State officials have acknowledged that they expect student scores and proficiency rates to drop. But they're urging parents not to worry, saying the new curriculum offers the best way to prepare students for college and careers.
Lou Wool, superintendent of Harrison Central School District, said concern about standardized testing is no longer limited to a small minority.
"Some folks may think these individuals are not representative of the average parents," Wool said of the critics. "These are PTA presidents and PTA members. People are coming up to me at evening events who are unhappy about how kids are feeling. This used to be more of a fringe issue, and now it's more of mainstream issue."
A Hudson Valley group called Re-Thinking Testing Mid-Hudson has more than 450 parents talking online. A Facebook group on Long Island called Long Island Opt-out Info has more than 7,500 members.
State Education Department officials emphasized during a press briefing Monday that no student can completely opt out of the tests.
State officials said tests are part of the academic program that schools are required to offer. A student who stays home would face the consequences of individual school attendance policies and possibly a makeup exam. A student who shows up at school must be offered the exam, although she can refuse to take it.
Officials argued that parents should want their child tested, as the tests will give parents an idea how students are doing with the new curriculum.
Raymond Sanchez, superintendent of the Ossining Union Free School District, put out an email to parents explaining the effects of "opting out."
"That was basically the intent, to be clear and make sure the facts are out there," Sanchez said. His message noted that a lack of participation could affect district funding.
Wool, who has been critical of the transition to the Core Curriculum -- saying the pace is too fast -- also encouraged parents not to opt out, but for a very different reason. He said having data on all students will bolster arguments for changing the direction of testing.
"We think that there is some value in the assessment," Wool said. "And it's one of the ways that we can continue to inform the way these assessments are going to move forward, about what we think they tell us about our kids or our programs."
Schools could face unpleasant consequences if many students opt out. Under federal law, at least 95 percent of a school's students must take the exam if the district is to achieve what's called Adequate Yearly Progress, a factor in federal aid to some schools. Not all schools receive Title I funding, but those that do could lose money if enough students missed the tests, educators say.
Parent Bianca Tanis of New Paltz said she believes threats about funding are mere scare tactics designed to stop parents from making the choice to have their children opt out. She and others are encouraging parents who don't wish to opt out to instead have their children wear green on testing day.
"For the majority of districts, there are no consequences," Tanis said. "I think that [state officials] are keeping an eye on the climate right now."