Tougher tests worry local schools -- and parents

Photo by Flickr user Chris Costes; published under Creative Commons license.

Sharpen your No. 2 pencils, kids. This week, public-school students in third through eighth grade across New York State buckled down at their desks for the first round of tough new standardized tests in English Language Arts. Next week, students face another round of testing in math. The new tests are designed for the Common Core curriculum, a new educational initiative that has been adopted by 45 states so far.

New York is one of the first states to roll out Common Core exams. The tests are expected to cause a precipitous drop in student test scores -- according to New York Sate Education Commissioner John King, the number of students deemed "proficient" on the new tests is expected to go down by about 30 percent

The state Education Commission has lauded the new tougher standards -- and the new tests -- as a necessary step forward. In a recent video about the Common Core standards released by the Education Commission, King says that the new standards will help foster critical thinking skills:

Too many of our graduates aren't prepared to succeed in college or their careers. The Common Core state standards are the answer to this problem. The standards are higher. The standards are fewer. And the standards are deeper. They focus on developing the kind of critical thinking and problem-solving skills students need for success in the 21st century.

But not everyone is on board with the Common Core tests. An opt-out movement among parents who worry about the tests' impact on their students is gaining steam around the state. In a recent North Country Public Radio story about the new tests, Saranac Lake parent Zoe Smith, who pulled her two children out of school during their tests this week, tells a reporter that standardized tests are interfering with her children's learning:

"I feel like it's sort of sucking the love of learning out of my kids," Smith said. "I see that with their teachers, too. A lot of teachers are losing, sort of, that love of teaching. I think it's creating this sour environment in our classrooms."

Whether or not a school district thinks the new tests will be good for their students, the growing opt-out movement puts districts in a tough position. If more than 5 percent of students opt out of the tests, the district stands to lose aid dollars.

Locally, parents and school boards have had mixed reactions to the tests. 

In the Cairo-Durham Central School District, the Daily Mail reports, administrators have been beseiged with calls from worried parents about the tests:

Cairo-Durham Superintendent Mary Fassett said she fielded a “flurry” of calls in the days preceding the test from concerned parents asking about “opting out” of the tests, worried that their children were being unnecessarily and unproductively stressed by the new requirements.

The school responded with a robocall, letters and information posted on their website about the tests and the notion of “opting out” — the seemingly popular idea that students can be excused from the tests.

“While the district certainly applauds the concerns of parents and that they’re so invested in their children and want to make sure that they have the very, very best, the school does not have the legal authority to allow anyone to opt out of the test,” Fassett said in a telephone interview.

Several boards of education for area districts, including Kingston, New Paltz and Rondout Valley, have passed resolutions urging state and federal authorities to place less emphasis on standardized tests.

The Onteora Central School District's board of education considered a similar resolution at their most recent board meeting, but tabled it for a later meeting, with some members worrying that being critical of standardized tests would encourage more parents to opt out of this week's test. From a Daily Freeman report of the meeting:

Board members and district Superintendent Phyllis Spiegel McGill expressed reservations about the wording of the resolution, which was introduced by board President Ann McGillicuddy.

While agreeing with much of the resolution, board Vice President Tony Fletcher said, “It’s dangerous to take such a strong stand against something that’s built into the system.”

Fletcher said he was hesitant to adopt a resolution that could send a message to parents that it’s acceptable for students to opt out of standardized tests.

Saugerties district superintendent Seth Turner recently cautioned parents in the district not to keep their children home on test days, saying that the district has a duty to uphold state standards:

“I’m very glad that adults are beginning to pay attention to something that I deem to be problematic with education, and that is a fascination with testing,” Turner said. Even so, he said, every member of the Board of Education took an oath to uphold the Constitution and state laws when they were sworn in, and the district’s administrators are obliged to follow the regulations handed down by the Education Department.

School districts may face consequences if their students don't take the tests, but the students themselves face no penalty for opting out. A Goshen lawyer told the Times Herald-Record this week that if parents keep their kids home on test day, there's not much the schools can do about it:

"I don't think there's a darn thing that districts can do about it," said lawyer Michael Sussman of Goshen. "Students do have a way out if their parents don't want them to take the tests or if their parents write letters saying it's medically injurious to them. Many parents have been pulled their kids from taking the tests and the districts don't have any recourse."

In a recent story, the Daily Star spoke with several local superintendents, including Delaware Academy's Jason Thomson and Sidney's Bill Christensen, about how the tough new tests will impact their districts. Thomson said Delaware Academy has been planning for the tests:

At first glance, it’s more difficult that in the past, he said, and some students didn’t finish. However, Delaware Academy worked with several other school districts to prepare with the best available test information.

“We’ve been preparing for almost two years,” using the information to mirror what to expect in our local tests, he said, adding that work by staff and administrators was important in the smooth performance.