By: Patricia Siano, Policy Fellow with the New York Educator Voice Fellowship

Re: A plan for meeting the 95% participation testing mandate of ESSA that is fair to all


The New York State Education Department (NYSED) is charged with creating a plan to address the 95% testing participation mandate in  Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). It is important to meet the “rigorous action” requested by the Department of Education without fueling the political conundrum of opting out in New York State.


Implement a multi-year plan that engages schools in data analysis, corrective action (if warranted),  as well as incentives for schools to promote opting in/participating in the required state exams.


The ESSA legislation passed in December 2015 requires all states to have 95% participation in standardized testing to insure an equitable education. Schools are held accountable for providing a quality education to all students. Standardized testing is a critical component of the accountability formula. 

The testing component is not new. In fact, it has been part of holding schools accountable since the first iteration of the law, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA in 1965. It was reauthorized under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. In December of 2015, ESSA modified the ESEA to relinquish power from the federal government to state education agencies to hold schools accountable. 

ESSA builds on the ESEA legislation, a civil rights law, with a goal of insuring that all students, regardless of geography, race, income or other factors receive a fair and  quality education.  Measuring the success of school districts in delivering a quality education becomes the basis of targeting schools in need of improvement, allocating resources and other supports. It makes sense that national civil rights organizations criticized parents who opted their students out of standardized testing because they see tests as one measure to insure that all students are receiving a quality education. They believe that the data to make important decisions is incomplete if all students are not included. 

However, in 2014, when standardized testing was aligned to the new Common Core Standards and the teacher evaluation system in New York, testing became a political nightmare. The only way parents and some educators believed that they could fight back against the system was by opting out of these tests. Approximately 1 in 5 students were opted out of the standardized tests in grades 3-8 in New York in the last 2 years. This makes the ESSA 95% participation component a topic for much debate and concern for New York State.

New York State policymakers need to meet with the federal mandate while addressing the recent frustration and on-going debate. We need to continue to use standardized testing as one reliable tool to insure an equitable education for all students all over our state.


Implement a multi-year plan to address the 95% participation rate of students in testing that includes incentives for schools improving and meeting the requirement as well as 

For schools not meeting the 95%:

  • Year 1 - Complete a data analysis of the reasons for opting out. (tool created by NYSED - completed by district)
  • Goals: 
    • identify the root causes of opting out (which vary across the state)
    • desegregate the data to differentiate between: exclusion, parent misinformation, educator misinformation, other reasons
  • Year 2 - of not meeting 95% - Create a plan to educate/inform staff and parents about testing; partner with school that is meeting 95%  (depending on data collected in year 1)
    • Resource from the state of Connecticut on how they improved participation in assessments. 
  • Year 3  - of not meeting 95% - NYSED intervention (visit to school, PD for staff, community outreach)

Incentives for schools meeting 95% participation:

  • BLUE RIBBON STATUS (cannot be earned without 95% participation)
  • New designation for 95% (that does not meet Blue Ribbon guidelines) (-example: Shining Star for School-Community Partnership, etc.)
  • Letter of Commendation to Parents/Community celebrating

Incentive for schools showing IMPROVEMENT in participation:

  • Alternative accountability formula (that includes an actual percentage of test-takers, as is currently in effect)
  • Public Relations Campaign from NYSED and supporting organizations: TV/Radio/Newspaper ads outlining why we test/how equitable education results from appropriately targeting resources. Include National PTA and Civil Rights organizations. 


There will be a cost (time/staffing) to create an electronic tool to gather data for year 1 of not meeting the 95% participation rate for NYSED to review the submitted data.

There already exists the resources to improve communication with staff and parents on-line.
If a school district does not make 95% for 3 years in a row, sending NYSED staff into the district would again, require staffing resources. (If a district has done everything possible to promote participation as documented in year 1 and 2, it would be unfair to penalize the district further. NYSED can come in to review protocols for community engagement/communication, offering direct on-site support.)
There would be a financial cost for the positive public relations campaign. It would be helpful to engage the national organizations that promote opting in and sharing the positive reasons to have students participate.


I propose that these recommendations are considered for the plan that New York State must submit by September addressing implementation of ESSA.

For more information, contact the New York Educator Voice Fellowship or email