A few weeks before third- through eighth-graders across New York take state-mandated tests that now, for the second year, reflect the new, more rigorous Common Core standards, a small but growing number of parents don’t want their children taking the exams.
“A year ago, it was kind of a lonely place to be as a parent,” said Molly M. Dana, a West Seneca mother of a fourth-grader. “And now, the numbers are growing and people are paying attention.”
In the last few years, a handful of parents have pulled their children from testing to protest what they viewed as an overemphasis on standardized tests. Last year, the movement picked up steam as the new Common Core-aligned tests came out, fueling concerns that testing time has increased and that the tests are too difficult, putting too much pressure on children, particularly because the test results were now linked to teacher evaluations.
This year, the number of students opting out is expected to increase, so much so that school boards across the Buffalo Niagara region and the state have to figure out what to do with the children while their peers are taking the tests.
Should they be forced to sit at their desks quietly during the whole testing period? Or should schools offer an alternative, such as letting them read during the test or do some other educational activity in a different room?
“We’re talking about children. This whole issue is very large and involves a lot of adults,” West Seneca Superintendent Mark J. Crawford said.
West Seneca schools, along with Depew schools, are seen as being among more accommodating to parents who want their children to be able to opt out.
“The children should not be the recipients of people’s disapproval or unhappiness, by allowing them to sit still and stare,” Crawford said. “I’m not going to punish a child by having them sit with their hands folded for two to three hours.”
Other school districts are taking a harder line.
The Williamsville and Lancaster districts have both set policies that require all students to remain at their desks during the testing period, which can go as long as 70 minutes, and do nothing.
Critics call it “sit and stare.”
Many more districts – including Buffalo city schools – were hoping Albany would soon give clear guidance on what to do with children not taking the tests.
Teachers urge alternatives
Last week, the state Education Department released a one-sentence statement reiterating its policy that all students are expected to take the tests and that schools do not have any obligation to provide an alternative location or activities for individual students while the tests are administered.
“State assessments in English and math offer an opportunity for educators and parents to gauge the progress a child is making toward the standards. Why wouldn’t a parent want to know how well his or her child is doing?” Jonathan Burman, an Education Department spokesman, said in a statement about the state’s rules.
The teachers union has pushed back against the tests and the teacher evaluations tied to them. New York State United Teachers is pressuring school officials to come up with better plans for students who opt out of testing. Earlier this month, it again condemned the practice of “sit and stare” and called on the state to instruct districts to provide alternative locations or activities for those opting out of the tests.
The friction began last spring, as parents from Hamburg to Grand Island, Springville and beyond, pulled their children from school on those test days.
This year in Western New York, the anti-testing message can be found on lawn signs, laminated bookmarks and business cards.
Amy L. Gipe, of East Aurora, had business cards made up for herself and other parents, urging refusal of the state tests. Gipe hands out the cards as she encounters people discussing broader educational reform.
In the heart of downtown Lancaster, Tracy A. Diegelman’s shop windows carry a message far beyond dolls, games and fun toys.
Tucked between stuffed giraffes, penguins and a zebra in her Bloomsbury Lane Toy Shoppe’s windows are two cardboard images of children with a bubbled message that says: “We are more than a test score.”
A larger sign reads: “Parents: Refuse NYS Tests.”
As the debate rages, the dilemma has taken on ugly tones.
Williamsville’s superintendent, Scott G. Martzloff, received an accusatory email from Eric Mihelbergel, a co-founder of Western New Yorkers for Public Education, a coalition of 45 parent and educator groups.
The City of Tonawanda parent told Martzloff in no uncertain terms: “You are a child abuser.”
“Forcing an innocent child to sit in silence in a hard chair for prolonged periods of time with nothing to do for several days is a violation of child care laws,” Mihelbergel wrote to him.
Martzloff has a far different opinion of his district’s decision to not provide special allowances for any students who refuse the tests. The only reading to be done by the opting-out children in Williamsville will be to “read the test,” he said.
“I’m having trouble understanding the high degree of angst,” he said. “I know the tests are challenging, but we’ve had grades 3 to 8 testing for many years. I see it as being true to our educational mission.”
Martzloff also asked what should happen if children are allowed to opt out of tests: Should they then be allowed to opt out of “homework and Friday quizzes, and book reports?”
“Where does that end?” Martzloff asked.
The Lancaster School District also has been a lightning rod for debate on the issue.
Lancaster Superintendent Michael J. Vallely last week announced that the district will not allow students who don’t take the tests to read at all during the testing period.
“Lancaster tried to come in in the middle and compromise,” he said. “It hasn’t been accepted that way, because they (some parents) didn’t get what they wanted.”
But now, on the advice of district lawyers and further review, Lancaster schools have decided that there will be no special accommodations for those not taking the tests, despite an earlier compromise that would have allowed minimal reading.
“We want to make sure our children are not put in the middle of this debate,” Vallely said. “The adults are placing a child in a very difficult situation. The children want to please both their parents and teachers.”
Vallely said his teachers and staff also received disturbing emails from people elsewhere in the state, threatening them if they did mostly a sit and stare policy.
“This was unsettling. I had teachers receiving these emails and crying, and saying, ‘What’s going on?’ ”
Some school districts, such as Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda, are hoping to find a middle ground.
“We tried to take a common-sense approach,” said Ken-Ton Superintendent Mark P. Mondanaro. “We know some parents vehemently oppose the tests, but we’re also not going to do anything illegal.”
Last year, the district let students who opted out to read silently during the test in the testing room, he said. A total of 24 refused to take the exams.
“We’ll probably just remain the same, unless we see some different correspondence from the state,” Mondanaro said, but was quick to add. “We are not a pro-opt-out board or district.”
In West Seneca, that district has made clear that it’s not going to make their students “sit and stare” during the tests. Rosalia Carabba, librarian of East Middle School, said she and her husband last year decided to refuse state testing for their son and have filled out a form letter distributed at a Common Core forum last month to refuse again this year.
“My son was not forced to sit and stare, while the other students took the test,” Carabba said. “He was removed from the classroom. That day, my son learned a new term: civil disobedience.”
West Seneca has stood out as a barometer of understanding.
“It doesn’t make sense to me, and it’s not fair when children are not taught what they are tested on,” Crawford said. “I also don’t think the teachers should be held accountable for the test scores.”
Placing ‘finger on the pulse’
Depew Superintendent Jeffrey R. Rabey said his district is crafting a contingency plan: Students not taking tests may read, receive remedial services or do another academic exercise.
“We want it to be as beneficial to students taking the test, and those not,” Rabey said. “We’re trying to keep our finger on the pulse of what parents might be deciding.”
June Chapman Bosworth, of Depew, finds solace in that approach.
“We’re a small district, but a front-runner on this. Hopefully, other districts will take his lead,” she said.
Orchard Park schools are treading cautiously.
“We’re being very sensitive and aware,” said Lisa M. Krueger, assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction and pupil services. “Our goal is to be in compliance to provide an appropriate test environment.”