Below is a memo that Class Size Matters and NY State Allies for Public Education sent to Commissioner Elia and the NY Board of Regents last week, on what may seem like an arcane and technical subject but is actually critical to ensure that opt-out students aren’t counted as failing in the new State Accountability system for schools under ESSA.
ESSA, or Every Student Succeeds Act , passed last year by Congress, was an attempt to move away from the overly-prescriptive No Child Left Behind law and the even more prescriptive NCLB waivers imposed by Arne Duncan. Not only does ESSA authorize states to allow parents to opt their children out of exams with no fear of consequences, but it also specifically bars the Secretary of Education from telling a state how school participation rates must be factored into its accountability system, as the memo points out.
And yet then-Secretary John B. King and the accountability hawks managed to slip a poison pill into the law: that for the academic component of the system, at least 95% of all students in the testing grades must be included in the denominator — whether they took the state exams or not.
This provision appears to be written with the goal of forcing schools to try to force parents to make their children take the tests – lest the schools be counted as failing. Since many NY schools had opt-out rates of 20 percent or more, this would incorrectly identify many otherwise successful schools as low performing and thus in need of comprehensive improvement and support.
What we point out below is that though the denominator may be specified in the law, there is nothing that specifies the numerator. Thus, we propose that instead of counting opt-out students as having failed the state exams for the purpose of rating the school, the state should insert into the numerator test scores that are average for other students at the school or for their subgroup.
If and when we receive a response from the Commissioner or the Board of Regents we will let you know. Meanwhile, this memo could be useful for advocates and parents in other states who don’t want their children’s schools unfairly penalized on the basis of high opt-rates.