BY CHERYL SLAVIN
What has started, over the past few years, as a murmur of concern about the effects of Common Core aligned standardized tests on student and teacher evaluation and performance has now swelled into a roar of protest by thousands of parents statewide over what they believe are unfair, developmentally inappropriate and ultimately useless statewide “assessments” of their students’ educational progress. To date more than 184,000, or roughly 17 percent, of students statewide in grades 3—8 have “opted out”, from taking the English Language Arts exams administered last week. There has never been that many refusals before in the history of statewide standardized tests. Last year about 60,000 refused.
Advocates and some educational professionals cite several reasons why parents have become so enraged. They claim the tests are “developmentally inappropriate,” quizzing students on subject matter far above their grade level in a manner designed to be intentionally ambiguous and confusing. They question the validity of linking student performance on such exams to as much as 50 percent of a teacher’s performance evaluation. They point to hours of time spent on test preparation and administration that could be spent instead on curriculum and actual subject matter instruction. Opponents protest the link that state and federal governments have established between test performance and government funding for the school district. They also note the increasing levels of frustration and anxiety students experience as a result of the pressure to perform well on the assessments.
In Rockland County, most school districts have reported significant percentages of their students opting out. Nyack, Clarkstown and South Orangetown have all reported refusals at around 33 percent. In North Rockland, the number was even higher—more than 47 percent. Pearl River came in at 38 percent, and Ramapo Central at 41. Nanuet appeared to be the lowest, but with a still substantial 25 percent. With every district but East Ramapo reporting, the New York State Allies for Public Education put the total number of Rockland refusals at 5445.
“We should be clear,” says Suzanne Coyle, a mother of three Clarkstown students who has opted out for several years, “that we are not against testing itself. What we do want are meaningful and developmentally appropriate tests that will accurately reflect what students are learning and what they know.” Coyle has been active in advocating in favor of opting out, including traveling to Albany and lobbying legislators to reject the tests as they are currently formulated. She also opposes tying test results to teacher evaluations: “Any percentage of evaluation attached to test results will promote teaching to the test rather than teaching subject matter material,” she asserts.
Many district administrators, however, as well as officials at the Department of Education, assert that opting out will only hurt the children in the end. Not only do they say that the tests provide a valuable diagnostic tool for school districts to ascertain where they may need improvement, they also assert the importance of districts having the means to compare themselves to one another on a uniform basis. But the real damage from opting out, they allege, would be a potential reduction in federal education funds if the state cannot show at least a 95 percent participation rate in the standardized testing.
In Rockland, some superintendents are less concerned about this than others. Nyack superintendent James Montesano reports that he doesn’t anticipate a funding impact on his district. “Only schools labeled as a ‘local assistance plan’ school (LAP) or a ‘focus school in need of improvement’ would be affected,” he explains, “and there are no schools in Nyack with that designation.” He did go on to say that Upper Nyack Elementary might become ineligible for a ‘reward school’ grant usually given to high achieving schools.
South Orangetown Interim Superintendent Harry LeFevre, however, distributed a letter to parents shortly before the exams were given in which he asserts that there might very well be a negative financial consequence to opting out. He later told the Rockland County Times that at the very least the middle school stands to lose its federal reward grant of $75,000 which would have been used to support its STEM program.
Both administrators did say that they understood and respected parents’ rights to ultimately make the decision that parents believed would best serve their children.
“Parents have been feeling powerless at the state and federal levels,” Montesano elaborates. “The decision to opt out is a way to make their voices heard, that they do not agree with the choices that government officials have made regarding their children’s educations.”
Coyle concurs. “The fact that we had to get to the point where thousands of parents are boycotting the tests shows how frustrated we’ve become. We’re tired of not being heard.”