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March 29, 2014

Don't opt-in for high-stakes testing

By Danielle Boudet Guest Commentary
The Daily Star

---- — If you are the parent of a child in grades 3-8, then you know that the focus of education has shifted to the upcoming state tests in English Language Arts and Math, which start April 1. But did you know that you have the right to refuse these tests on your child’s behalf?

Last year, an unprecedented number of parents, fed up with excessive testing and accountability, boycotted the tests. This year again, record numbers will refuse to participate in this series of standardized, high-stakes tests.

Parents stand united to send a powerful message to the New York State Department of Education (NYSED) and the Board of Regents that they are sick of the stranglehold testing has over our schools. Throughout all corners of the Empire State, more than 45 parent and educator groups, comprised of tens of thousands of individual members, are focused on the upcoming testing season. In Oneonta, a growing number of parents are planning to refuse this year’s tests.

The refusal process is easy, and starts with a refusal letter that parents simply submit to their school indicating their decision to refuse state testing, and that their child will be coded as a ‘999’ or a refusal. This will result in a child receiving ‘no score’ according to NYSED’s own Student Information Repository System (SIRS) manual. Many districts, such as the Oneonta City School District, are accepting a parent’s letter on behalf of the student. These students will be automatically counted as refusals and allowed to read in an alternate location.

Refusal policies vary district by district, however. Parents are encouraged to contact their school administrators to inquire about how the district plans on handling test refusals.

There are no negative ramifications for students, teachers, or schools. Common myths that students will automatically fail, that a teacher’s evaluation will be negatively affected or that a district will lose money are simply not true.  The state tests have no bearing on a student’s report card, promotion, or graduation. ‘No scores’ from refusals are not used to calculate teacher accountability, according to the SIRS manual. Furthermore, teachers have reported that students of all abilities refused last year’s test, which means that a single refusal does not affect a teacher’s evaluation using growth scores.

The biggest fear tactic aimed at parents is that our schools will be punished financially. Last year many schools failed to comply with the state’s participation regulations because of high numbers of refusals, including Ichabod Crane Elementary/ Middle School which had an incredible 26 percent opt-out rate.

The bottom line is that there have been zero reports of schools losing money because well-informed parents did the right thing by “opting out.” There is no harm in “opting out.” But there is great harm in opting in as we perpetuate a test-driven type of education.

Standardized testing is just one limited means to gauge student progress. They measure only a fraction of what is important; create a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching and learning; and narrow curricula while ignoring valuable programs and subjects outside of ELA and math.

The state tests, in particular, do not benefit instruction as the material is a copyrighted secret and the results take too long to come back to educators, and then without student-specific information that makes the results useful.

These high-stakes tests are an unreliable snapshot in time that unfairly judge children, teachers, and schools. Worse, the reliance on high-stakes testing is damaging the culture of our schools, and reducing our children’s classrooms to test preparation centers.

Parents know that their children are more than a number. Unfortunately, the data-driven agenda of the state education department has ignored concerns repeatedly expressed by tens of thousands of parents and educators across New York State. Refusing the NYS tests in grades 3-8 is an act of responsible parenting. We are our children’s best advocates, and we must stand up for what we know is, not only sound educational practices, but good parenting.

Veteran Oneonta educator Ken Sider, speaking to a standing-room only crowd at an Oneonta Area for Public Education event at SUNY Oneonta, said: “As a parent, if my daughter were in elementary school today, I would exercise my right to have her refuse the tests. I see no good reason to voluntarily participate in a testing program that is not only anxiety-producing and unjust, but optional.”

To learn more about test refusal and to download a refusal letter, visit the New York State Allies for Public Education webpage at NYSAPE.org. Locally, Oneonta Area for Public Education, a grassroots organization of parents, educators, and tax-payers, has been working hard to dispel the myths about test refusal and provide our members with up-to-date and factual information on testing and “opting out.”

We encourage parents with questions to join us on Facebook, or on the web at oa4pe.wordpress.com.

DANIELLE BOUDET is a Morris parent of two children and a co-founder of the grassroots group Oneonta Area for Public Education.