EDITORIAL: Can we end the need to opt out?

DOES THE BOARD OF REGENTS need a summer vacation? They work hard and get high marks for effort. Mostly, they play well with others. But there is this one subject that needs improvement.

It has to do with the parents, many of whom won’t allow their kids in the 3rd through 8th grades to take what used to be called the “high stakes” standardized tests. The tests aren’t part of the kids’ grades. Instead they were designed to determine whether students are working at grade level in English and math. The parents and the kids who refused were, and still are considered part of the opt-out movement.

When the tests were introduced several years ago local school districts like Ichabod Crane faced a dilemma. Over 60% of kids did not take the tests. There was some talk at the time that the state would punish school districts financially for the parents’ revolt. It sounded threatening because the requirement for the tests was part of a deal for more federal aid for education.

Those rumored sanctions failed to materialize and fewer kids opt-out kids now. But the problem has not gone away. Schools districts in central Long Island had a 50% opt-out rate on the math tests this spring. This mass civil disobedience by parents weakens the value of the data from the tests. It’s also a reminder that there are still plenty of parents here who question or reject the need for the tests.

This week the Board of Regents approved new proposals that could give authority to the state commissioner of education to force school districts that don’t have adequate test scores to devote some of their federal funding to improving the scores. It sounds like state officials want the power to force districts to spend federal funds to prepare kids for tests that federal law requires instead of using that money to educate our children.

The Regents and the current commissioner, Mary Ellen Elia, don’t see it that way. They say they have to work within federal guidelines that are part of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act adopted during the Obama administration. The feds want at least 95% of kids to take the tests and the state is about 15 points shy of a passing grade, the way Washington sees it.

And it only gets more complicated. The opt-out movement simmers, fed by memories of the state’s botched roll-out of the Common Core learning guidelines, questions about the multi-national company that previously supplied the tests, and a perception that state political and education leaders weren’t listening to the complaints of the movement, let alone taking those complaints seriously.

There have been positive changes, but not enough. The opt-out folks vary in their political views but their opt-out grievances can sound remarkably similar to those voiced by people who voted for Donald Trump.

The Regents know their latest approach to the opt-out movement won’t make the problem go away. That’s why they have extended the comment period on their proposed rules until July 9. Big deal.

It’s just that kind of passive approach that widens the gulf. It reinforces the movement’s view that the state officials who run our education system haven’t got a clue. That is not the majority view, but if the Regents shrug off this minority they put the whole public education system at risk.

At a time of shrinking public school enrollment across much of the state, education policy makers must work harder than ever to reestablish trust with opt-out parents. There is no status quo; if the state Education Department (SED) fails to reassure these skeptical families, it will speed up the flight to private schools. And the Regents know that nothing would please U. S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos more than the rapid privatization of public education.

The Regents might want to learn from Ms. DeVos’ boss. If federal law is responsible for the prolonged opposition from opt-out parents, come up with an alternative and pick a fight. Even if the Regents and SED lose in a struggle with Washington, parents will know the state made an effort and they will know who’s at fault.

Parents have a role too. From now until July 9 there’s an opportunity to give the Regents advice and constructive criticism. Make serious proposals and they might treat them seriously. Silence now when the Regents are vulnerable and might respond won’t help anyone, least of all children.

For more go to: www.p12.nysed.gov/accountability/essa.html

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