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Schools' chance at 'Blue Ribbon' status threatened by Common Core test opt-outs

George McVey Elementary School Principal Kerry Dunne is

George McVey Elementary School Principal Kerry Dunne is shown holding a copy of the application she wrote herself to the U.S. Education Department in applying for a "Blue Ribbon" award. Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

A dozen public schools across the state, including two on Long Island, risk losing their chance to win coveted national "Blue Ribbon" awards for academic excellence because of the drop in the number of students who took standardized Common Core tests this spring.

An estimated 200,000 students statewide in grades three through eight, or about 20 percent of those eligible, did not take state English language arts and math tests in April because of a growing parent boycott of exams -- the largest such grassroots protest in the nation.

The schools whose chance at Blue Ribbon status is threatened, including George H. McVey Elementary School in East Meadow and Quogue Elementary School, received nominations for the awards last winter from the state Education Department. Nominations were based mostly on results from the previous year's state tests, given in spring 2014.

The actual awards, however, normally would be based largely on results from the latest round of testing in April.

As a result of the test opt-outs, 12 of 19 schools nominated statewide for 2015 Blue Ribbon awards could be found ineligible, state and local education leaders said. The reason, officials said, is that those schools did not achieve the 95 percent student participation rate in this year's testing that federal rules typically require.

"The Blue Ribbon is something that you earn," said Kerry Dunne, principal of McVey Elementary, who has helped coordinate a statewide effort to persuade federal officials to adjust their rules. "Our children have worked so hard. Now, for reasons beyond their control and beyond our control, they're going to be denied that. I really don't know what's going to happen next."

Launched in 1982, the National Blue Ribbon Schools Program is the federal government's best-known recognition system for schools with academic achievement that is high or rapidly improving. Honored schools are announced each fall and allowed to display banners presented by the U.S. Education Department.

Dunne estimated she spent 60 hours over six weeks preparing an application for Blue Ribbon status. It described her school's academic programs in depth and ran 35 pages.

McVey Elementary has 670 students in kindergarten through fifth grade. About 84 percent of eligible students in grades three through five took the state exams in April, Dunne said.

"It's a dilemma," said Richard Benson, superintendent of the Quogue school district in Southampton Town, who also serves as principal of the system's lone school building. "We'd always encouraged kids to participate in testing in past years. But parents got caught up in the [boycott] movement."

Quogue Elementary School has about 120 students in prekindergarten through sixth grade. About 88 percent of eligible students in grades three through six took this year's state tests.

Principals at affected schools, working with the School Administrators Association of New York State, a union umbrella group, have asked state and federal authorities for a one-year waiver from the usual Blue Ribbon program rules. Under this waiver, schools would be allowed to substitute test participation rates from 2014, or an average of rates from 2012, 2013 and 2014, instead of using 2015 figures.

However, statements Friday by state and federal officials appeared to rule out such an option.

State Education Department spokesman Jonathan Burman said the agency was discussing the issue with the U.S. Education Department. But he added that the state would normally use an average of 2014 and 2015 participation rates in determining eligibility for this year's awards.

Burman said the state Education Department would reach a final decision on schools' eligibility by the end of August, after officially calculating the latest school-by-school figures for test participation and achievement.

Dorie Nolt, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Education Department, issued a statement saying that federal law allows for averaging participation rates over a two-year or three-year period, but the calculations must include "the most recent year's data," referring to 2015.

"At the same time, it remains the responsibility of states to ensure that all students are assessed annually, because it gives educators and parents critical information about how the student is doing and ensures that schools are paying attention to traditionally underserved populations like low-income students, students of color, students with disabilities and English language learners," the statement said.

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