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More Perspectives on Testing Opt-Outs From New York and Beyond

In my story this week, I look at the testing opt-out movement that takes aim at the assessments aligned to the Common Core State Standards. The campaign has made the biggest waves so far in New York state, but more broadly, it has also intensified discussions about the role of testing in schools. 

Here are some tidbits, themes, and quotes that didn't make it into the print version of the story now posted online:

• There's still no official number from the New York education department about how many students opted out of the state's common core exams. We may find out on July 1, which is when the state has said it plans to release test results. But Loy Gross, the co-founder of United 2 Counter, and the opt-out advocate I spoke to for my story, said she's convinced the movement has already gummed up New York's assessment plans. (Remember, this is the third year of common-core testing in the state—here's what I wrote in 2013 when the first round of New York common-core test results were released.)

"Something in this state education department is going to break," Gross said. "Right now the testing is broken. It's all broken. Parents put on their best mommy voices and said, 'That's enough.'" 

But she also stressed that her group isn't just focused on junking the standards and tests. United 2 Counter's long-term goals include a "child-centered education" and tests written by state teachers. 

• Jenny Sedlis, the executive director of StudentsFirst New York and an opponent of opt-out, dished out praise to two of the bigger enemies of the opt-out movement, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Cuomo, she said, should get plaudits for seeing the overwhelming share of teachers who received top ratings despite disparate test scores and demanding a new evaluation system (even though he vetoed his own evaluation-related bill in the process). And Duncan, according to Sedlis, has done a good job "ensuring that states maintain high standards and raise the level of instruction."

"The teachers' union is always going to oppose change, but I think we've made significant progress this year," Sedlis told me. 

She also rejected the argument that opt-out advocates tend to be better informed and more engaged than their counterparts. According to Sedlis, plenty of parents have access to and have digested all the information they would want to chose not to opt their children out of tests. 

• One point I tried to touch on in the story is how Merryl Tisch, the chairwoman of the New York Board of Regents, is articulating a relatively balanced position on opting out.

As a key policy official who oversaw the state's transition to the common core and three-year-old tests, and as someone who's mindful of federal law, she clearly has no appetite for even hinting that opt-out might be a good idea. Yet at the same time, she's positioned herself as a defender of local schools against any potential federal sanctions triggered by insufficient test participation.

"What you see her trying to do is to listen to all of those people. And it does not feel to me, as an ousider, there's much desire on the part of people who feel most strongly about this to have any kind of compromise," said Kristen Amundson, the executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education. "It's a particular challenge when you don't have a state chief." 

• When I talked to assessment expert and University of Colorado Professor Derek Briggs last month about opt-out in New York, one thing I didn't mention is how many test-takers the exam would need in order to ensure the validity of the test and receive feedback about test items of various difficulty levels. That's one of Tisch's main concerns.

The key factor for validity, Briggs said, is to make sure that each grade-level test is taken by a representative sample of students, based on their ability levels. In the Empire State, Briggs told me, a good sample of about 5,000 students per grade might be enough to ensure a valid test, he said.

That's not at all to say reaching that statistical threshold (a relatively low threshold for a state like New York, where about 2.7 million students are enolled in the K-12 system) should satisfy the exams' supporters. Briggs said testing opt-outs have significant potential to disrupt how test scores are used to evaluate schools. A few opt-outs in some demographic subgroups at an individual school, for example, could dramatically impact that small group's overall performance level.

"I'm real worried if I only have 50 percent of my students in any given school [taking the test]," Briggs told me. 

• One more note: Colorado Senate Bill 223, which would have allowed students to opt out of the state exam, failed the House education committee last week. But testing policy in Colorado is still uncertain.

Dick Carpenter, also a professor at the University of Colorado, said that the opt-out movement in his state actually has roots in district-level efforts to limit the scope of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) exam in their schools. He referenced a push last year from Colorado Springs District 11 Superintendent Nicholas Gledich to require only a sample of students to take PARCC, not all the students required to under federal law.

That was followed by a state board vote to allow districts to seek waivers opting out of PARCC, although that push has stalled.

"School districts themselves have actually been on the leading edge of this" in Colorado, Carpenter told me.

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