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Debate over opt-outs erupts at Regents meeting

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, left, and Regent

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, left, and Regent Beverly L. Ouderkirk, who represents 11 northern New York counties on the policymaking panel, speak with reporters at a meeting of the state Board of Regents in Albany on Dec. 10, 2018. Credit: Hans Pennink

ALBANY — Plans by state education officials to identify dozens of schools on Long Island and statewide as low academic performers touched off heated debate at Monday's Board of Regents meeting, focused largely on test boycotts and their impact on new school ratings.

The debate was joined even as the state Education Department plans soon to publicly release the ratings, which will identify schools in need of "Comprehensive Support and Improvement," or CSI, and those with the less-severe designation of requiring "Targeted Support and Improvement," or TSI.

Meanwhile, state lawmakers are on their own fast-track agenda, responding to parents' and teachers' opposition to testing by pushing for repeal of the state's requirement that students' scores on state tests be used in all districts to measure the job performance of teachers and principals.

The sticky twin issues of testing and school ratings surfaced again this month in the Island Park district in Nassau County, where the superintendent posted a letter on the district’s website saying the middle school faces the possibility of a negative state CSI rating — in part because 60 percent of its students opted out of last spring’s state tests in English Language Arts and math.

Superintendent Rosmarie Bovino wrote in the letter, dated Jan. 4, that she had received a state Education Department notice advising her of problems at Lincoln Orens Middle School and inviting her response. Island Park has appealed the state’s tentative rating of the middle school.

At Monday’s meeting, Roger Tilles, who represents Long Island on the Regents board, joined several other members in asserting that state education officials previously gave them the impression that schools would not face sanctions because of test boycotts.

“That doesn’t sit well with people in my district,” Tilles said, referring to the Island.

Regent Beverly Ouderkirk of Morristown, in northern New York, objected to the possibility that schools could be labeled as low academic performers because some parents decided to pull their children out of state exams.

"Everybody else in a district is being punished," she said.

Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, who heads the department and reports to the Regents, responded that factors other than test opt-out rates are always factored in when determining school ratings. Six specific criteria are considered, and schools that improved test-participation rates between 2016-17 and 2017-18 will not be included on the state's low-performance list, she said. 

The commissioner said no schools would face any consequences from failing ratings until the 2019-20 school year at the earliest, and that the only requirement in that year might be that districts would have to draft improvement plans for those schools.

Elia noted that the state's complex use of formulas based on test scores in rating schools had been thoroughly discussed at Regents meetings before the board tentatively adopted it in September along with a 300-page package of other regulations.

"We've been talking about this for two years," the commissioner said.

Elia said the Regents will be given an embargoed list of rated schools within the next two days for their review before the list is publicly released. Officials did not reveal the date of the public release.

Schools designated as CSI or TSI, ranked among the bottom 5 percent or 10 percent of all schools statewide, would be subject to a range of graduated penalties, including closure in extreme cases, if they did not show improvement in test scores, graduation rates and other state-selected criteria within a multiyear period.

Federal law requires public schools to show a test participation rate of at least 95 percent of students in grades three through eight annually in English and math.

Boycotts of state standardized tests given to students in those grades have recurred annually on the Island and statewide, spurred by parent and teacher discontent. Islandwide, the opt-out rate in spring 2018 was nearly 50 percent, involving more than 90,000 students in grades three through eight who took the exams in ELA and math; statewide, more than 210,000 of 1.1 million eligible pupils boycotted the tests.

State lawmakers are seeking to address public opposition through legislation reintroduced in both the Assembly and the Senate. The measure would repeal the state's current mandate for using state test results to judge teachers' performance, instead allowing local districts to use assessments of their choice as long as those had the education commissioner's approval. 

The bill is on the Assembly Education Committee’s agenda for Tuesday morning.

The same measure was introduced last year and stalled in the Senate, then controlled by Republicans. In November's elections, Democrats gained the majority in that chamber, prompting supporters to predict that the legislation could pass this month or in February. However, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has not said if he would sign such a measure into law.

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