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April 8, 2014

Area schools: Many have opted out of tests

By Mark Boshnack Staff Writer
The Daily Star

---- — Oneonta City and Worcester Central were the two local school districts most affected by a movement to have students opt out of standardized testing in grades 3-8, several people interviewed said Monday. The effect on the two schools is yet to be determined, their superintendents said.

The English Language Arts tests were given statewide April 1-3, and upcoming state math tests are scheduled for April 30 and May 1-2, parents interviewed said.

With the rollout of the Common Core curriculum in New York and related initiatives involved with securing federal Race to the Top funding, groups were formed in the Oneonta and Worcester area to educate parents and teachers about the ramifications of the initiatives, parents and educators said.

The Common Core has been adopted by more than 40 states. Its troubled rollout in New York by the state Education Department has prompted action by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state Legislature to address the issue.

Rep. Chris Gibson, R-Kinderhook, has written federal legislation to address some of the problems including “high-stakes, burdensome overtesting,” and giving teachers more flexibility and students more time to learn, according to a media release from his office.

According a report by WABC, roughly 28,000 of the state’s 1.2 million students in grades 3-8 chose to opt out of the tests.

In Oneonta, about 150 of the 750 who were eligible opted out, Superintendent Joseph Yelich said, adding that he didn’t know how many were out sick during that time. It was a strong statement but its impact remains to be seen, he said. To meet federal requirements, 95 percent of students must be tested.

Having been notified by many of those involved that they would not be taking the test, the district looked for guidance from the state beforehand but none was offered, Yelich said. He expects to have a better idea of the impact by the end of the school year.

“I understand the parents’ position,” Yelich said, but he added that there needs to be some way to see what students are learning. He will be working with principals and teachers to make sure students get help when needed, he said.

“I don’t want to lose sight of that,” he said. The state will have to decide how to proceed, but if there isn’t enough participation, he said, the tests aren’t statistically valuable. He said he isn’t sure where that threshold is, but that line was crossed in the April testing.

Kjersti VanSlyke-Briggs, a SUNY Oneonta education professor, is an organizer of Oneonta Area for Public Education, which has been involved with the issues. Earlier in the school year, the organization sponsored forums on such subjects as opting out of standardized testing, Common Core and other issues stemming from federal funding.

“I thought it was a fabulous start,” she said of the numbers that opted out. “We have a long way to go. We need to let parents know that have a right to be involved in their children’s education.”

Opting out is a statewide initiative that should show the state Education Department that it needs to rethink the weight it puts behind test scores and how they are used in teacher evaluations, she said. They need to go back and see how to better benefit public education, she said.

Oneonta parent Christiana Gomez-Frye said having her two children opt out was not simply an exercise, but rather a protest against the direction of public education, including the faulty implementation of Common Core. Since schools with high refusal numbers didn’t see a loss of funding last year, she said she wasn’t concerned about that. Instead “it was an opportunity to educate my children to further understand what it means to be a critical thinker.”

At Worcester Central School, Superintendent William Diamond said about 40 percent of students in grades 3-8 opted out. One of those involved in the effort said 65 of the 150 students eligible notified the district they would not participate.

“I appreciate the position that parents have taken,” Diamond said. “It’s a very complicated issue, and it is difficult to get all the information out.”

As in Oneonta, students who didn’t participate were provided with alternative activities during the tests. Schools across the state asked for guidance and support on the issues, but that has not been received before the tests, Diamond said.

The impact of the move remains to be seen, he said. It would probably be felt by the district if it becomes a trend that lasts for at least two years, but “it is too soon to speculate,” he said. He said he’s expecting a similar response for the standardized math test.

The test results are valuable to teachers as instruction is adjusted to meet the Common Core, he said. Because of the lack of test scores, other means will have to be used to gather data, he said, but the tests will continue to be used for teacher evaluations.

Worcester parent Stacey Serdy said she has one child old enough to be taking standardized testm and she opted out. Serdy said she helped found the Worcester Community for Education group, following forums by the Oneonta Area group.

She said she was concerned about what teachers were going through to meet the new state and federal requirements, including Common Core and teacher evaluations, and that she sees this as an effort to slow down the process or stop it all together. 

By the numbers New York state • Of 1.2 million eligible students, 28,000 opt out (2.3 percent) Oneonta • Of 750 students, 150 opt out (20 percent) Worcester • Of 150 students, 65 opt out (43 percent)