From left, Rob Ciani, Celina Bialt, and Craig Kirchenberg react...

From left, Rob Ciani, Celina Bialt, and Craig Kirchenberg react during a speech given by Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers during a demonstration on Friday in Oyster Bay. Credit: Michael Owens

A statewide debate over how best to deal with schools where large numbers of students boycott state tests has taken a new turn, as teachers union leaders allege that proposed new regulations represent a “frontal assault” on parents’ efforts to opt their children out.

New York State United Teachers, an Albany-based union umbrella group, issued a letter criticizing proposed new financial penalties and other sanctions for school districts that do not maintain student test participation rates of at least 95 percent. The great majority of districts in Nassau and Suffolk counties do not meet that standard, set by federal law.

The testing dispute resonates on Long Island, where more than 50 percent of eligible students in grades 3 through 8 opted out of state English Language Arts tests administered in mid-April. The region has emerged as an epicenter of the boycott movement over a six-year stretch.

The union letter was addressed to state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, who later said during a Newsday interview that NYSUT and other educational groups had been consulted before the state regulations were drafted.

The regulations would restrict the way that penalized districts spend federal Title I dollars by requiring them to set aside money to be used in encouraging greater student test participation, according to union analysts who have reviewed the 95-page regulatory document. Details on the amount of money to be set aside would be worked out after the regulations passed, education experts said.

In addition, analysts said, the proposed rules would change the way test-participation rates are factored into schools’ overall academic ratings, making it more likely that schools would be classified as scholastically deficient. This could pressure reluctant parents into allowing their children to be tested, NYSUT officials said.

The disputed regulations, posted last month by the state Education Department, are intended to meet requirements of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which was approved in 2015. New York State’s Board of Regents is tentatively scheduled to take up the regulations for adoption at its next meeting June 11-12.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, makes...

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, makes a speech during a demonstration on Friday in Oyster Bay. Credit: Michael Owens

Previous state regulations required districts with low test participation to come up with plans for improvement but did not include sanctions like those evidently spelled out in the latest proposals.

“The draft ESSA regulations make a direct frontal assault on the rights of parents to opt out their children from the state testing system,” declares the letter signed by Jolene DiBrango, the state union’s executive vice president.

Elia, in a brief interview with Newsday, did not address the union’s specific criticisms but did note that federal law requires the great majority of eligible students to be tested annually.

“We’re required to give the assessments, and there is an anticipation from Washington — and actually, in the law — that you must have 95 percent of our students taking it,” Elia said as she emerged last week from a Hauppauge luncheon honoring valedictorians where she was keynote speaker.

The state’s chief school official added that NYSUT “was able, certainly, over the last year and a half to give their opinion, and I think we’re hearing their opinion once again, and that’s appropriate.”

Outside education experts agreed that federal law requires students to be tested and that any exceptions would be limited to a relatively small number.

NYSUT’s letter acknowledges the 95 percent requirement but contends the law is ambiguous on how states factor participation rates into their academic ratings of schools.

“The Every Student Succeeds Act seeks to hold states and schools accountable for keeping ‘opt-outs’ to 5 percent or less,” said Robert Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. “All states have to find some way to comply with that part of federal law.”

Current debate over ESSA regulations represents a new twist in a long-standing fight over links between student testing and teacher job evaluations.

NYSUT, in addition to supporting families who opt out of testing, is also campaigning against the state’s teacher-evaluation law adopted in 2015.

One provision of that law requires up to 50 percent of teachers’ evaluations to be based on results of state test scores — a requirement that boycott leaders say places too much stress on students and teachers alike. Albany has temporarily suspended enforcement, but the moratorium expires at the end of the 2018-19 school year.

NYSUT is pushing for legislative repeal of that provision. A union group gathered near one state lawmaker’s office in Oyster Bay Friday with picket signs that read, “Let us teach. Let them learn.”

One leader of the group, Joseph Romano, who teaches music in Levittown, contended that state tests have become largely irrelevant in terms of assessing educators’ job performance.

“When you’re seeing a 50 percent opt-out rate, I don’t see how that’s a valid assessment of anything,” Romano said.

With Keshia Clukey

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