BROOKLYN — The state has penalized 16 high-performing city schools — potentially costing them each up to $75,000 in grant money — because of their exam opt-out rates, DNAinfo New York has learned.
These schools were on track to win recognition from the state as “Reward Schools" — an annual honor that makes schools eligible to apply for grants — but were not included in the list because they failed to meet a 95 percent participation rate on the exams, state education officials confirmed.
“While U.S. Department of Education [USDE] guidelines allow states to impose sanctions on districts specifically for failure to meet participation requirements [of the tests], including the withholding of state funds, New York State has not taken such action against any district or school,” State Education Department spokeswoman Jeanne Beattie said.
“However, under New York’s flexibility waiver approved by USDE in 2010, a school must meet all applicable participation rate requirements to be designated as a Reward School and therefore eligible for a grant.”
The move is at odds with public promises not to penalize schools, teachers or students in any way for choosing to opt out of the controversial tests.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in August: "I don’t believe there are sanctions for opt-outs. And parents, at the end of the day, parents are in charge and parents make the decisions."
And Public Advocate Letitia James, this April, wrote a letter to families, stating: “I want to remind you that, as parents, you have the right to opt your child out of this exam with no consequences to you, your child, or your child’s school."
And, in a bid to calm parents' concerns about the test, the state temporarily discontinued using the tests to evaluate teachers and lifted time limits on the test for all students.
The state declined to release the full list of schools it shut out of the Reward Schools list.
However, DNAinfo learned of several schools that were dropped in Brooklyn’s District 15 — which spans from Boerum Hill to Park Slope and Sunset Park and has among the highest opt-out rates in the city.
Those schools include Park Slope’s P.S. 107, South Slope’s middle school New Voices School of Academic & Creative Arts and Boerum Hill’s M.S. 447, the Math & Science Exploratory School and P.S. 10, a popular elementary school in the Windsor Terrace/South Slope area.
P.S. 10 is a Title 1 school, meaning more than 60 percent of its student body is eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. It was a Reward School last year, and could have been eligible for up to $75,000 in state funds if it remained one this year, under the rules.
Principal Laura Scott declined to comment, but parents at the school were disappointed, especially given that the school has become a beacon for its approach to working with students with disabilities in its much heralded barrier-free environment.
“We are trying to understand the implications of not receiving Reward School status,” said RoseAnn Ciarlante, P.S. 10 PTA president. “However, it is concerning that a school or district would lose the opportunity to compete for any type of grant funding solely based on one type of measurement of the overall success of that school or district.”
The city’s Department of Education declined to comment on schools losing the Reward designation, but noted that schools were informed of the state’s criteria in a DOE FAQ, updated in March.
“Regardless of the reason (i.e., absence or refusal), if fewer than 95 percent of a school’s students or one or more of its subgroups of students (e.g., less than 95 percent of black students, students with disabilities, etc.) take the math or ELA assessments, the school is designated having failed to make “Adequate Yearly Progress” for that school year,” the FAQ noted.
“Schools that do not meet the participation rate criteria are not eligible to be considered for ‘Reward School’ status,” the FAQ continued, “which highlights schools identified as demonstrating high performance or high progress relative to other schools in the state.”
Last year, 143 city schools were selected as Reward Schools, according to the state, but only eight of them met the eligibility requirements for the grants.
Reward Schools fall into two categories: those that are high achieving, falling in the top 20 percent of schools in the state for English and math on the standardized tests for two consecutive years, and those that are among the top 10 percent of schools in terms of gains on the exams.
On top of that, the schools cannot have significant gaps in student achievement between different demographics, such as students with disabilities versus students without disabilities.
Reward Schools that are also Title I schools are eligible to apply for grants.
Parents said they don't appreciate the conflicting information over opt-out sanctions.
“For the state to punish our school for the educational decisions parents make for their children is outrageous," said Lisa Hamilton, a parent of a fourth-grader with special needs at P.S. 10.
Hamilton said she opted her son out last year but allowed him to take the test this year to show him that there was nothing to fear.
"The school does a lot. Our school should be rewarded for all it does for our children, and it shouldn’t be punished for the personal decisions that parents make,” she said.