Test refusals steady at about 1 in 5

by Paul Heiser

On Board Online • September 4, 2017

By Paul Heiser
Senior Research Analyst

About one in five students in grades 3 - 8 refused to take the English language arts (ELA) and math exams last April, according to figures released in August by the State Education Department (SED).

Although down slightly from last year, the proportion of students "opting out" of the tests has held steady since SED started reporting this information in 2015. In 2017, 19 percent of all eligible students in all six grades combined refused to take the test, compared with 21 percent in 2016 and 20 percent in 2015.

According to SED, students who refused the test last April were likely to be white and from low-need or average-need districts. They were also less likely to be economically disadvantaged and English language learners. A total of 939,000 students in grades 3-8 took the ELA exam and 909,000 students took the math exam.

Although the total percentage of test refusals has remained steady over the past three years, most districts are seeing a decline in the percentages of students refusing to take the exams. A NYSSBA analysis of the SED data found that test refusal rates on the ELA exam declined in two-thirds of districts between 2016 and 2017. In math, test refusal rates dropped in 77 percent of school districts.

The recently enacted federal Every Student Succeeds Act gives states and school districts significantly more control in determining how schools are measured. However, the law still requires at least 95 percent of students overall and in various subgroups to sit for the exams.

"Schools are faced with a dilemma," said NYSSBA Executive Director Timothy G. Kremer. "They are required to give these tests for accountability purposes, but a large segment of parents are skeptical of their value."

New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) issued a news release saying the most recent grade 3-8 test results are "virtually meaningless" amid changes in state standards. NYSUT opposes New York's teacher evaluation system, which still uses metrics based on student test scores but currently does not provide for any employment-related consequences based on those test scores.

Meanwhile, the most recent annual report by Phi Delta Kappan (PDK) measuring what the public thinks of their public schools found that New Yorkers believe student performance is less important than other factors when judging schools on their quality. Only 40 percent of New Yorkers believe how well students do on standardized tests is an important determinant of school quality. (See chart, page 1.)

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