Roger Green’s third-grade daughter has had a rough week. Usually when she comes home from Albany’s Pine Hills Elementary school, Green works with her on some math, science and reading homework, which he says gives her a sense of balance and discipline. But this week she didn’t have any homework, and says she was bored in class. The reason? Her school was taking the newly state-administered standardized ELA tests.
“They just want her to be prepared for this test—it’s all about the test—instead of the week-by-week homework,” says Green. “Only the test is important.”
The new set of tests is part of the Obama administration’s Common Core State Standards, which focus on English Language Arts (ELA) and math. Forty-five states have adopted the exams, which are based on the Common Core Standards curriculum, which was introduced to New York state school districts this year.
“I think our school and many of the schools are feeling real anxiety about this. Not just pressure, but anxiety,” Green says. “And it’s OK for them to feel stressed; I just don’t want my kid to feel stressed. She’s a good kid, she wants to please people and wants to do well, she wants to be cooperative, but you don’t need to make her not be able to sleep at night because she’s concerned about this test.”
Jenn D’Arcy’s 8-year-old took the ELA exam at Glendaal Elementary School in the Scotia-Glenville Central School District, but he won’t be taking the math test. “I feel like they’re in a rush to introduce the Core Curriculum,” says D’Arcy. “It is not in line with what my child has previously learned, so the test is asking him things that typically he wouldn’t have learned until fourth or fifth grade.”
The state doesn’t recognize “opting out” as an option for parents or students. Students may “refuse” the test themselves, but will then be labeled “untested.” Different schools have various policies about opting out. Some will accept a letter from parents, some dictate that the letter must contain certain words or phrases. In other schools, letters for opting out are not accepted. Instead, the students must mark on the exam that they “refuse.” In the Ichabod Crane Central School District (which serves northen Columbia and southern Rensselaer counties), students can be excused by bringing in a letter with specific wording from their parents. About 135 students, or around 17 percent of students in grades three through eight, opted out of the ELA portion of the test last week.
Superintendent George Zini says the Ichabod Crane district sees the state tests as an important assessment tool and encourages parents to have their children go through with the testing. Still, the school has been accommodating parents’ wishes if they send in a letter stating their child will not participate in the exams.
Nonparticipation in testing could result in a loss of funding for school districts. Through Obama’s Race to the Top initiative, states applied for grants from a fund of $4 billion, and New York was awarded $700 million. Districts with a less-than-95-percent participation rate in the tests, however, could be ineligible for that funding; though the federal government granted New York (and a other states) a three-year waiver on this provision.
Zini isn’t sure what the consequences could be for his district. “They haven’t been definitive on that yet,” he says. “We’ll have to wait and see. To hold districts accountable for what parents feel is their right to choose for their children what they think is best, that’s completely out of our control as a district.”
“I think when you look at what the state is doing—what the state is putting forth—you need to speak up,” says Kate Sundwall, president of the PTA at Ichabod Crane. Sundwall decided to have her fifth grader opt out of the tests this year.
“This test is doing nothing to help our children,” she says, adding that it doesn’t give parents feedback on their child’s strengths or weaknesses. Ichabod Crane students who were not tested were instead assessed in person by a teacher.
In a statement, Dennis Tompkins, spokesman for the New York State Education Department, says: “The goal is to make certain that all students are on track to succeed in college and meaningful careers when they graduate high school. Parents who keep their children from taking these tests are essentially saying, ‘I don’t want to know where my child stands, in objective terms, on the path to college and career readiness—and we think that that’s doing them a real disservice.”
That’s the message Sundwall says she’s been receiving from the state. “I take offense to that. I can guarantee you, that even though my child is not taking the state test, he is going to college, and I am well aware of his development,” she says. “I feel like they’re really undercutting the parenting abilities of the parents who have chosen to opt their children out. I think they really need to step back and start to listen.”
At Voorheesville Central School District, only one student opted out of the ELA test, but Superintendent Teresa Thayer Snyder has been outspoken in her opinions against the exams. She wrote on the superintendent’s page of the district’s website that, while the district will be giving the exams as they are expected, she feels the need to take a stance of “Loyal Opposition.”
“I have worked in this field for so long and with so many children, each as unique as their thumbprints, that I simply cannot pretend that compliance with the requirements is good educational practice for the youngsters in my care,” her letter reads. “We don’t waste a whole lot of time worrying about the test. We worry about the kids and the curriculum.”
Snyder says the tests are difficult, and that they expect students to read four or five years above their grade level. One sample question for the ELA, she says, asks third grade students to read Tolstoy. “I would read Tolstoy with third graders, but that’s the operative,” says Snyder. “I wouldn’t expect a third grader to independently read Tolstoy.”
Her biggest concern is the way this data will be used or misused. Last year, Kentucky was the first state to introduce the tests, and the number of students who scored “proficient” or higher declined by about 30 percent from the year before the Common Core exams were introduced.
In Voorheesville, one day after the ELA tests, the third graders at Voorheesville Elementary wrote and performed a short musical play for their whole school at a spirit assembly. Teachers participated and acted as characters along side the children. “It was brilliant,” says Snyder. “That’s what elementary school is about. We won’t give up on those things, just because of tests.”