Parents Take a Stand Looking for Results, Not Scores
SARATOGA COUNTY – There was a time when it would have been unthinkable for a student to refuse to take a school exam, but according to grassroots organization United to Counter the Core, about 2,654 Saratoga County students opted out – with full parental consent – from the NYS Standardized English Language Arts and Mathematics assessments last week and this week, respectively. In the Capital Region, two districts reported more than 40 percent opted out of the ELA, but that number has risen this week with more districts hitting that number and one reporting closer to 70 percent opting out.
According to Michael Piccirillo, Superintendent of the Saratoga Springs City School District, 467 students opted-out of the ELA tests, but so far that number has grown to 647 for the math tests, which is about 22 percent of students not taking the tests this week. “The number of students who have refused to take the exams has created some significant stress regarding a safe place for students to be during the test and ensuring an appropriate testing environment for the rest,” he said. “Plus, there’s confusion about whether there will be any impact from the Feds [U.S. Department of Education] for these refusals. On the one hand, some are saying we could lose Title I, but States are saying otherwise.”
Ballston Spa Central School District spokesman Stuart Williams stated that about 380 students opted out of the ELA, and the numbers are about the same for math. “We’re looking at about 20 percent of students opting out.” The Schuylerville Central School district reported about 20 percent of students opted out of the ELA assessments, but this week the number rose to almost 29 percent opting out of the math assessments.
“As a school board member and a parent, I see both sides of the issue,” said Nancy Fodera, President of the PTA Council at Ballston Spa Central School District. “I give parents a lot of credit for trying to fight back and speak up for their children, but I’m not sure opting-out of the tests will give them the answer they are looking for. It may result in a knee-jerk reaction from the State. If my kids were still in school, I wouldn’t have them opt-out, even though I agree with parents that tests are not the answer. Instead, I’d be in there talking with the school board, the principals, and the superintendent and try to come together towards a solution. I am sure we’ll be doing that moving forward.”
Jane E. Kromm, Principal at St. Clement’s Regional Catholic School, said about 12 percent of her students opted out. “We don’t use the assessments for teacher evaluations as the public schools do, but our students have been learning the Common Core curriculum for three years now, and it’s a good way to measure their academic growth. Plus, we make it as comfortable an experience as possible for the students, so they can strengthen test-taking skills.”
Janey Klotz, a parent of a 5th grade boy at St. Clement’s, said parents have been having conversations around these new Common Core tests for over a year, now. “I love our school and we have fabulous teachers who have a passion about teaching, but I think there’s a lot of confusion out there among parents – not just at our school but in our community. Some think the tests don’t count, and some think they do. Some worry it is more stress than necessary on students and teachers, others that learning time is being spent on teaching to the test. There’s a lot of misinformation out there.”
“I think parents are trying to make a thoughtful decision on behalf of their children, and I respect that,” said Piccirillo. “This year we went to every parent group represented at each building, plus Parent University workshops, educating the community about the Common Core. I think these tests are important for gauging the progress of students in meeting the new standards, but they are just one of a number of data points. My own daughter is taking the tests and I’m looking forward to seeing what the data says about her progress.”
He went on to emphasize that the districtwide goal for 2014-15 is 65 percent at least at proficiency level and 20 percent at mastery, but that it will be difficult to know if the number of students opting out of the assessments will skew the results, which may in turn make the numbers of students at those two levels an invalid measure of progress.
The districts reported seeing an increase in the numbers of students opting out of the math test over the ELA test. Klotz was among several parents who received “robo calls” from NYS Allies for Public Education, encouraging parents to choose to have their students refuse to take the ELA and math assessments. The calls provided a web address with formal forms for parents to sign and present to their schools. “I was surprised that the call came the day before the first test last week. That’s too late for a parent to do anything about it.”
Some parents did do something about it, though. “I received some forms,” said Kromm, “but I also received some that were personal notes from parents who chose to opt-out.”
Klotz mentioned that she and other parents are weighing options for middle school. Although she’s fairly confident she’ll keep her son in the Catholic schools, she and her peers are paying attention to what is going on in the public schools, which she says is a part of the decision-making process. The public outcry around the tests is an influence. “I can’t help but wonder, should a school’s education program be based upon helping children explore their interests and helping them grow to become a good, caring citizen that helps society? Or should we have a system that is based around a test so the state can decide how much money each school should receive and whether a teacher should keep their job based on the outcomes?”
A spokesperson at the New York State Education Department said they would not have numbers of students who opted-out available until summer to allow time for the testing data to be gathered and analyzed.