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How high are the stakes? Looking at the local effects of state assessment opt-outs

SPRINGVILLE — New York state-mandated testing has made waves across Western New York, as parents have pulled their students from the examinations, in order to take a stand against Common Core and the tests’ role in teacher evaluations.

Locally, the percentages of students opting out are higher than county-wide averages, with 18.18 percent sitting out at Springville-Griffith Institute and 30 percent laying down their pencils at West Valley Central School.

According to WVCS Superintendent Eric Lawton, the 42 kids who decided not to take the test are a “significant portion” of the small school’s student body.

“Because we have so few kids, it’s going to be difficult to use the [test results] data to see how the kids are learning,” Lawton explained.

He noted that many of the parents who opted out of the test were “the informed parents,” many of whom he posited had attended a March 20 forum on Common Core.

At that meeting, West Valley teachers Michelle Enser and Steve Kenworthy spoke on the value of testing, its impact on their teaching and how it affects their students. Enser teaches second grade and Kenworthy is a math instructor, as well as the organizer of the forum.

Springville parent and local opt-out advocate Chris Cerrone, who also teaches at Hamburg Middle School, explained that the Annual Professional Performance Review has resulted in a significant increase in mandated testing.

As a middle school social studies teacher, Cerrone said he has also noticed a difference in students entering the seventh grade and how much knowledge they carry of his subject matter, coming in.

Cerrone provided material to attendees on how to opt out of state tests, which Lawton said resulted in many of the attendees’ children laying down their No. 2’s.

At WVCS, students who chose not to take the test still had to sit in the room with the rest of the kids. Lawton said they were encouraged to read through the test, “just to see what was on it,” but that many of them “put their heads down and took a little rest.”

Lawton noted that, in his district, he is more concerned about what opting out will mean next year, when Common Core is fully implemented.

“Part of the issue with people supporting opt out was that they feel that the implementation was not fair,” he explained. “Now, we have implemented the Common Core modules in a more positive way. There are more units out there; the teachers are attending training and getting more comfortable with them.”

At Springville-Griffith Institute, 18.18 percent of students chose not to take the tests, which works out to 151 students. S-GI, according to Superintendent Paul Connelly, took a slightly different approach than WVCS, in part because of the numbers of students opting out.

“Last year, we had 64. This year, we had 151. Last year, we decided to honor the parents’ requests that their kids not take the tests, and we had a ton of kids come in and say, ‘Wait a minute, if so-and-so doesn’t have to take the test, then why do I have to take it?’ and when we’re supposed to be focused on administering these examinations, now we’re dealing with all of these kids.”

As a pre-emptive measure, S-GI sent out a letter to all parents, before the tests, stating that it was their right to opt out, but a letter from the parents saying so had to be returned to the school, so the students could bring reading material.

“If we didn’t get that letter back, the kids could do what we call a ‘sit and stare,’ where they literally do just that.”

Connelly said that the 151 students who were recorded as opting out were those who had returned letters, and that there may have been “a handful” who chose to sit and stare, on the day.

As for the reason parents chose to protest the examinations, both Lawton and Connelly said it could stem from a variety of factors.

“I think a lot of the big push is because they’re using student data to evaluate teachers,” Lawton said. “And that’s what they mean by ‘high stakes.’ It’s not high stakes for kids; these test results don’t determine [Academic Intervention Services], it doesn’t determine placement. It’s not high stakes.”

“What’s interesting is, we have to report our school’s scores to [the Board of Cooperative Education Services] and they have to report that to the state department of education. Those students not recording scores could affect our aid,” Connelly explained. “We could lose money, for real, by kids and parents refusing to take tests. Which means, through our budget process, that we would have to raise the levy on property taxes.”

Cerrone said that, for his part, he was most concerned about the educational effects of teachers’ spending time preparing for state tests, in English language arts and math, rather than teaching all subjects in equal parts.

“Many families who choose to boycott the state assessments, across New York state, are concerned that their children are not receiving a well-rounded education,” Cerrone explained. “Parents need to ask their schools how much time is devoted to history, science, the arts, physical education and creativity in elementary school? Many schools place an over-emphasis on the tested subjects of ELA and math, which is having a negative impact on our children’s education.”

But Connelly said that he is more worried about the effects of testing on teachers’ and principals’ ratings, in accordance with the Annual Academic Performance Review established by Education Law 3012-C.

According to that law, “20 percent of the evaluation shall be based upon student growth data on state assessments, as prescribed by the commissioner.”

Those APPR evaluations, according to 3012-C, “shall be a significant factor for employment decisions including, but not limited to, promotion, retention, tenure determination, termination and supplemental compensation.”

“[Education Law 3012-C] is a terrible piece of legislation put into place by [New York State Board of Regents Chancellor] Merryl Tisch and David Steiner, commissioner of education at the time,” Connelly explained, of the law that was signed on May 28, 2010 by then-Governor David Paterson.

“It was drawn up without any communication with any of the legal authorities throughout New York state. Unfortunately, the Legislature bought it.

“How this law affects teachers’ and principals’ ratings and the fact that the Legislature did not go near it [in the most recent budget session] is more important, if you ask me,” Connelly continued. “It’s absolutely terrible. We’re talking about kids transferring in and out of classes like crazy, teachers going on leave for maternity and the like, and being rated for something that is so completely out of their control.”

While the students’ scores on state-mandated assessments are 20 percent of those teacher evaluations, Connelly said that it is the institution of 3012-C that poses more of a risk than the tests themselves, in his mind. He also took issue with the “high stakes” moniker applied to the exams by its many opponents.

“With institutional education, high stakes is whether or not you get to stay in school,” Connelly said. “Whether you’re told you can go to school or have to go do something else; that’s high stakes. We’re fortunate here; everybody gets to go to school. The stakes aren’t that high.”

In a speech last week, current Commissioner of Education John King acknowledged the opt-out movement as a “small but meaningful” percentage of students in the state, and acknowledged the difficulty of assessing students’ performance statewide, if the data is not collected.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said that he intends to scale back the use of the state tests to evaluate teachers, and hopes to address it by the end of the legislative session.

Caught between parents who are pulling their students and the state’s requirements, both Connelly and Lawton said they understand concerns from parents like Cerrone, but are between a rock and a hard place, until the rules are changed.

“I’ve been pushing hard for the state education department to get its head out of the sand,” said Connelly. “They haven’t, and now they’re saying, ‘holy smokes, this is an issue!’”

Both S-GI and WVCS have addressed the APPR requirements, state tests and Common Core’s effect on their respective budgets, at ongoing budget negotiations, currently underway.

The next WVCS board meeting takes place on April 22 at 7 p.m., in the school’s library and media room.

The next S-GI board meeting is also scheduled for April 22 at 7 p.m., in that school’s library and media center.

For more information on opting out of state assessments, Cerrone’s blog with facts, figures and external links can be found at www.nystoptesting.com.
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2014-04-19 | 11:32:00
Lawton is misinformed
Either the superintendent was misquoted, or he is misinformed. The tests, by law, determine AIS services for students. If he thought he could use those ridiculous tests to "find out how the kids are learning", that is worrisome. As my superintendent says, "throw the results out, they are garbage".
2014-04-19 | 11:40:29
Funding
NYSAPE explains the participation rate and funding issue here: http://www.nysape.org/if-my-child-refuses-state-tests-will-my-school-lose-funding.html