Remembering how anxious her son became after his first round of state tests a year ago, Lisa Beckwith decided this year to pull him from the exams.
“Every day he had stomachaches,” Beckwith recalled. “Even though they tell you, ‘You can’t fail,’ he thought he was going to fail.”
Beckwith has joined a small but growing movement of parents who are choosing to have their children refuse to take statewide tests in order to send a message to the state about their displeasure with the assessments. And while the overall number of students refusing the tests is still relatively low – in many schools it has been no more than a handful – it could have an impact on how the state labels some schools.
West Seneca Central schools, for example, had 110 students out of 3,067 third- through eighth-graders whose parents had them not take the test when the English Language Arts exams started Tuesday. While that’s just about 3.6 percent of the students, it could be enough for two or three schools to not meet state requirements for test participation, according to Mark D. Beehler, the district’s chief information officer.
Administrators in Springville-Griffith Institute Central School District are concerned about how the 64 students who have refused the tests so far will impact the district and its teachers. Last year, the district had fewer than 10 refuse to take the tests.
“On the local level, it’s a tremendous stressor,” said Superintendent Paul M. Connelly. “It’s tough on our teachers. It’s tough on our principals. It’s difficult on our families. Our kids are put in the middle, and we’re just trying to make the very best of a confusing situation.”
Enough students at Springville-Griffith Middle School have refused to take the test so far that the school, currently labeled by the state as in “good standing,” will not meet state benchmarks for its “annual yearly progress.”
In the first year, that could affect how a school’s performance is labeled by the state and make it ineligible to become a “reward” district. But if a school does not meet its “adequate yearly progress” for several years in a row, it could be required to create a corrective plan and take other measures to improve the school.
Connelly, like other administrators, is looking for more state guidance on how to handle testing boycotts that affect how programs and teachers are measured.
“What I’ve been saying to the state Education Department is, ‘You guys have got to step up,’ ” Connelly said. “This is not just Springville.”
The tests are meant to identify struggling schools and districts, and to help them improve. But for many parents, the decision to hold a student out of school during the tests or to have their child sit through the exams without answering questions is driven by a concern that the focus on preparing for and taking statewide tests is squeezing out other types of instruction beyond math, English and science. Other parents are concerned about the amount of money paid to corporations to develop the tests.
“One of my biggest issues with this is the amount of time spent on preparing for the test,” said Beckwith, whose son is in the Frontier District. “That equals a loss of real education for our students because preparing them for a test is not educating them for the real world.”
Like Beckwith, Kenmore resident Eric Mihelbergel said he became concerned about the amount of time the schools are spending on testing and preparation for assessments that are largely used to gauge the effectiveness of schools and teachers.
“We’re failing to teach our kids so many other intelligences,” said Mihelbergel, who has become an outspoken critic of the statewide exams. Mihelbergel has held his fifth-grade daughter, Ava, out of school during the exams this week and instead has planned other activities for her during that time. Wednesday, they went to the Kenmore Branch Library to research historical civil disobedience.
While some parents are writing letters to schools and pulling their children out of the exams, the state Education Department provides no formal way for students to opt out of the exams. In a January memo to school superintendents, Director of State Assessment Steven E. Katz said that failure to comply “will have a negative impact on a school or school district’s accountability, as all schools are required to have a 95 percent participation rate in state testing.”
“We all want the same thing for our children. We want them to graduate high school ready for the challenges they’ll face in college and their careers,” said Jonathan Burman, a spokesman for the Department of Education. “So it’s hard to understand why parents would forgo the chance to know how their children are progressing toward that goal of college and career readiness.”
Mihelbergel, like other parents, doesn’t see the state tests as adequate measures of his child’s performance because the results come back several months after she would finish the grade level.
“My child’s teacher can give me a very, very accurate description of how my child’s doing in school,” Mihelbergel said.
Districts, meanwhile, have struggled to decide how to work with parents who don’t want their children taking the tests. Some districts have required the students to convey the message that they are refusing the test or have required students to sit quietly through the entire length of the assessment. Others have accepted a note from the parents or have called parents to stress the importance of the tests.
That also means explaining to parents that once a child begins testing, he or she will receive a score whether or not they complete the second and third days.
“We will do our due diligence,” said Beehler, a West Seneca administrator. “For every student that has said they’re opting out or that we’ve received a letter from, we have contacted the parents and made sure that they understand the repercussions of it.”