MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Spring is standardized test season at most schools. This year in New York State, test critics mounted a boycott. Solvejg Wastvedt of member station WSKG reports on a small school district where over half the parents said no to tests.
SOLVEJG WASTVEDT, BYLINE: On state test day at school, all the students file in, sharpen their number two pencils and bend over their bubble sheets - or not. In Cooperstown, N.Y., last month, 61 percent of students refused to take the state tests. They call it opting out. They're part of a push in New York and elsewhere to refuse tests as a form of protest against controversial education policies. At Cooperstown, the opt-out fervor even made it into this week's school board election.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Welcome to the candidates' night for the school board...
WASTVEDT: One of the candidates is a vocal opt-outer.
TABETHA RATHBONE: I think that there's a lot of frustration from parents. I think there's a lot of frustration from teachers. Quite honestly, that's why I'm running.
WASTVEDT: That's Tabetha Rathbone at a candidates' forum. She opted her third grade son out of the tests. She says the tipping point for her was a slate of new education policies from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. One of them ties teacher evaluations closely to student test scores.
RATHBONE: And then a lot of people finally said, you know, if we don't opt out, it's almost like we're opting in.
WASTVEDT: Schools can get in trouble if a lot of their students opt out. The federal government requires schools to get nearly everyone to take the tests. If a school misses the mark multiple years in a row, there's a possibility it could lose funding. Cooperstown Superintendent C.J. Hebert has never had that problem before. Last year, just a handful of his students opted out. This year, he says he doesn't know how he can improve test participation.
C.J. HEBERT: Other than assist with the communication, you know, talk about what we utilize the test results for, and we certainly do.
WASTVEDT: So public relations, essentially. It's Hebert's only option, and he says the state education department didn't help.
HEBERT: It really was a lackluster job of getting the information out. I think there's a lot of misinformation and disinformation that's been disseminated.
WASTVEDT: Most of the reasons for opting out aren't things the school controls. Hebert says that's why New York State is going to have to fix this, starting with those controversial teacher evaluations.
HEBERT: What will occur in the future, both here in Cooperstown and elsewhere, I think it's going to be based on whether people feel that the evaluation is fair.
WASTVEDT: It's not clear yet what New York will do about the test refusal. The state says it will decide on a case-by-case basis whether to take away any funding. School board candidate and mom Tabetha Rathbone says she never wanted to create a hassle for her school.
RATHBONE: You know, I mean, that's the whole, I guess, aspect of civil disobedience. You know, in New York City when they're marching down the streets, they're inconveniencing the people that are trying to drive down the streets. It's not fair, but that's just kind of what happens.
WASTVEDT: Rathbone says the opt-out venture sent a message that's hard to ignore, and she says until the people in charge show they're listening, she won't be opting back in. For NPR News, I'm Solvejg Wastvedt in Binghamton, N.Y.
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