- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 8, 2016

BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) - Ninety-nine New York schools missed out on being labeled “Reward Schools” because not enough students took the state’s math and English assessments last year.

For some, it may have cost more than bragging rights. Some schools also lost the chance to apply for up to $75,000 in related grants.

The revelation - state education officials call it a consequence, not a sanction - conflicts with widespread assurances to parents that there would be no harm in sitting their children out of the controversial Common Core tests.

In order to be recognized by the state as a Reward School, a school’s students must be in the top 20 percent in standardized test performance for two years or be among the top 10 percent of schools with the biggest gains. Under a waiver New York received from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, at least 95 percent of a school’s students must have taken the tests.

But for the past two years, many schools have seen double-digit opt-out rates as parents have protested the high-stakes tests as unfair and unnecessary, taking the schools out of the running for Reward School status.

While federal guidelines allow the state to sanction districts for low participation, it hasn’t done so, according to a statement from the New York Department of Education. The rules for Reward School rules, though, are clear in requiring at least 95 percent participation, the department said.

New York City’s P.S. 10 fell off the Reward School list it occupied last year, disappointing parents who said they made decisions to skip the tests based on assurances there would be no ill effects, RoseAnn Ciarlante and Tyndall Arrasmith, co-presidents of P.S. 10’s Parent Teacher Association, said.

A memo from Public Advocate Letitia James, who serves as a liaison between New Yorkers and their government, in advance of the assessments reminded parents of the right to refuse the test “with no consequences to you, your child or your child’s school.” Advocates of opting out noted the state had never punished a school for low participation and Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa said she would sit out her kids if she were a parent. The president of the state’s largest teachers union also publicly urged parents to skip the tests and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, when asked last year, told reporters he didn’t believe districts would be sanctioned.

James said this week that her office would investigate “to ensure that schools are not punished for personal educational decisions.”

For the majority of the 220 newly named Reward Schools, the reward is prestige. But for schools receiving federal Title 1 funding for disadvantaged students that are on the list for two years, it includes the right to apply for a grant to help share and enhance their best practices.

The state Education Department said low participation kept 99 schools off the Reward Schools list but it declined to name the schools or say how many would have qualified for the grant.

Last year, there were 49 eligible Title 1 schools among the 365 Reward Schools, 19 of which received grants. The grants cannot be used on things like construction or technology.

New York State Allies for Public Education, an advocacy group that advised parents on opting out, said low participation should be waived for schools that otherwise qualified for Reward School status.

“The opt-out parents chose because there’s a big problem with the tests,” spokeswoman Lisa Rudley said.

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Associated Press Writer Karen Matthews contributed from New York City.

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