What had been a small but growing parent protest movement against state standardized tests a year ago appeared to considerably expand in pockets across Western New York on Tuesday as elementary and middle school students began the first day of the state’s three-day English Language Arts exam.
In West Seneca, 27 percent of the district’s 3,087 children in third through eighth grades had parents who opted out of the reading tests, according to administrators.
In Frontier, parents of about 5 percent of the roughly 2,300 potential test-takers had notified the district as of Monday that they planned to have their children refuse to take the exams.
Frontier interim Superintendent Paul G. Hashem expected the total number to be higher after the district had a final tally later this week.
“It’s way more than last year,” Hashem said. “From what I’ve been told, last year there might have been 15 or 20 in the whole district.”
While exact figures were not available, early reports from educators and parents indicated that more parents have decided to direct their children not to take the tests compared with last year.
“I’m not against testing,” said Amy Metzger, a Niagara Wheatfield mother whose fourth- and seventh-graders refused the exams for the first time Tuesday. “I’m not against challenging my kids. I’m against my kids being used as pawns in the state’s reform.”
Metzger said she drew the line when she saw that fewer than a third of the state’s third- through eighth-graders passed the math and reading exams last year.
For Christine Cavarello, of the Town of Tonawanda, the link between the tests and teacher evaluations convinced her that she’d had enough. She had her three children refuse the exams Tuesday.
“It’s a burden that’s not appropriate for children,” Cavarello said.
The state tests have been required for years under the federal No Child Left Behind educational initiative, but their alignment with new Common Core learning standards last year and their use in evaluating teachers have raised concerns from a vocal constituency of parents and educators about the way the tests are reshaping public education.
Some parents are concerned about the high-stakes nature of tests that count toward 20 percent of some teacher evaluations. Others say they are concerned about the amount of time that schools spend preparing students for standardized tests and believe that the results come too late in the year for them to adequately inform teachers on how well the children did. Still other parents do not like the fact that the tests are written by a private corporation, Pearson Education.
“As far as evaluating the students, it’s not a good tool,” said Loy Gross, a mother of seventh- and eighth-grade girls in Pavilion Central School District who did not take the exams Tuesday. “There are much, much better tools that they have. I just view it at this point as a colossal waste of time and money.”
While tallies of students whose parents had them refuse the tests Tuesday were not available in many districts, parents and educators who have been urging others to opt out of the exams said they expected more students to take part in the boycott this year than last, based on informal reports in Western New York districts.
The state Education Department has worked in recent weeks to counter arguments by those who oppose the tests that the exams are an ineffective measure of student progress. In a letter to superintendents last week, Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. said the new assessments are designed to measure critical thinking emphasized in the new Common Core standards.
“Rather than rote memorization or test-taking tricks, these new tests require real analysis of and response to real-world problems and authentic texts,” King wrote.
Last year, less than a third of the state’s third- through eighth-graders reached or exceed proficiency benchmarks on the math and reading exams after they were aligned to the new standards. A committee of teachers, principals and administrators determined the levels at which student scores showed proficiency on the exams.
“I cannot overemphasize the importance of communicating clearly and consistently to your students, parents and teachers that assessments are simply a tool to tell us where we are and help us get better,” King wrote in the letter to superintendents.
The percentage of students in each school who opt out of the exams is being watched closely by educators. Federal law requires that at least 95 percent of students in a school participate in the exams, and schools in the past faced the potential for their school status to be affected if they failed to meet the participation rates over time.
The state Education Department, however, has said that no new districts would be identified as “Focus Districts” and that no new schools would be identified as “Priority Schools,” based on either the 2012-13 or 2013-14 assessment results.
While a rising number of students opted out of the exams across the region Tuesday, school districts handled those refusals differently. In some districts, children were allowed to read quietly either during a portion of the exam or the entire time. In others, such as Williamsville and Buffalo, the students who did not take the tests were allowed only to read the exam booklets.
New York State United Teachers last month called on school districts to abandon what they described as “sit and stare” policies of some districts.
Philip Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, on Tuesday condemned a decision by Buffalo Superintendent Pamela C. Brown to issue an opt-out policy late last week prohibiting students from reading anything other than the exam booklet during the test.
“This is terrible,” Rumore said. “This is absolutely outrageous.”
News Staff Reporter Sandra Tan contributed to this report. email: firstname.lastname@example.org