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N.Y. Regents Boss Claims Too Many Opt-Outs Will Force State Into 'National Test'

On April 7, New York State Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch, who's the equivalent of a state school board chief, did an interview on "The Brian Lehrer Show" on WNYC about the new landscape for evaluations and testing. But she also got into the potential impacts of the opt-out movement. 

Tisch said that in order for these state assessments to work as intended, "We need a viable number of students in every district showing up to be tested."

That leads to Tisch's claim about the potentially damaging impact of the opt-out movement (her comment on this issue begins at about the 6:30 mark below):

In case the audio player doesn't work for you, here's what Tisch said: "In the absence of that critical number, we will be forced, unfortunately, and I truly believe unfortunately, to adopt a national test."

She goes on to say that New York state had a hand in developing one of these national tests, but wants to wait a year or two to see how those tests go "before I would subject" students, teachers, and parents to a switch to a new test.

That's a reference to the state's work as a member of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) consortium, one of two multi-state consortia that have developed tests aligned to the Common Core State Standards. Although the state's a member, it's been using a different common-core test for the 2012-13 and 2013-14 school years. 

Forced Into PARCC?

But what about Tisch's claim that if too many students opt out of New York's common-core exams, the state will be "forced" to give one PARCC test instead? Karen Magee, the president of the New York State United Teachers (the state teachers' union) recently called on parents to opt their children out of the state's common-core tests, so it's a high-profile K-12 policy issue in the Empire State at the moment. 

Merryl-Tisch-500px.jpgAs my colleague Lauren Camera explained in a recent story, the list of possible federal sanctions for falling below the 95-percent student participation rate required by No Child Left Behind include increased federal monitoring of a state, a cease-and-desist order, and all the way up to withholding a state's Title I funds. But there's no federal sanction that involves making a state switch tests if participation rates are too low. 

Aside from confirming that Tisch was referring to the PARCC exam when she mentioned a "national test," the New York state education department didn't point me to anything in New York policy or law that would force the state to switch tests if opt-outs reach a critical mass. 

Then I called up Gregory Cizek, a professor at the University of North Carolina who studies assessments. He said that while a high number of student opt-outs wouldn't completely invalidate New York's current test, a large enough number "would degrade the validity of the test. It would force the state to reconsider what it could do to get that information."

Since states want to pick tests that most tightly align with their classroom instruction, Cizek said, it would be natural for New York to pick the PARCC test as a first choice to replace its current exam. (Cizek serves on the technical advisory committee of the other testing consortium, Smarter Balanced.)

"I think most states would like to have their own locally controlled testing program," Cizek told me.

However, even though Tisch doesn't want to "subject" New York to switching to the PARCC test without more information, if New York went looking for a new state test in 2016, the state would have one year of operational PARCC testing data (from this spring) to consider. 

Total Opt-Outs Matter

A few more points: Derek Briggs, a professor at the University of Colorado who also studies assessments, said that in theory the participation rate on a test could drop well below 95 percent without seriously threatening the test's validity, as long as a high enough numbers of students who were representative of the overall student population were still being tested. 

"It's not the percentage, it's the number" that's more important, Briggs told me. 

For example, if too few high-achieving students took the test, Briggs noted that it would be very difficult to get good feedback about the hardest test items. (Briggs, in turn, is on the technical advisory committees of both Smarter Balanced and PARCC, as well as New York's technical advisory committee.)

That's not to say that very high opt-out rates aren't an overall threat to the test—Briggs told me that he'd be "real worried" about a 50-percent opt-out rate. And he said opt-outs and their impact on participation rates can become particularly problematic for accountability policies. For example, he said, a relatively small number of opt-outs at an individual school could significantly reduce the overall size of various student groups taking the test, and result in different consequences for that school. 

"If parents are opting out in massive numbers, it's a general threat to validity," Briggs said. "It's not as though there's a test that is opt-out-proof."

Photo: Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch speaks during a meeting last year, in Albany, N.Y. The board panel recommended extending the phase-in of Regents exams that are based on the more difficult standards, known as the Common Core, so that the class of 2022, not the class of 2017, would be the first group required to pass more rigorous English and math exams to graduate. Mike Groll/AP-File


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