Superintendents urge students, parents not to refuse state tests

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 11 April 2015 at 12:00 am

School leaders acknowledge controversy, say ‘Common Core’ tests provide important data

Photo by Tom Rivers – Michael Bonnewell, Albion Central School superintendent, speaks at the Albion Rotary Club on Thursday. He said student standardized test scores count too much on teacher evaluations.

Local school superintendents are urging parents to have their children take standardized tests that begin next week – and not join the “opt out” movement.

The tests provide important benchmarks for measuring student and grade level progress, school leaders said.

They acknowledge the controversy with high-stakes tests, and the state’s push to make the tests count 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation.

“While I respect a parent’s right to make decisions that they believe to be in the best interest of their child, the district is without authority to excuse a student from this state requirement,” said Robert D’Angelo, superintendent of Holley Central School.

There is no “opt out” option for students in grades 3 to 8 to miss the tests, superintendents said. Parents can have their children “refuse” the test and they will likely remain in the testing room, quietly reading.

The districts could face negative consequences, including reduced federal aid and more expenses, if they don’t have 95 percent or more of their students take the tests, said Julie Christensen, Kendall Central School superintendent.

If there is a drop in student participation on test days, it will be reflected in the district’s overall report card.

“As a district, our State School Report Card will reflect a decreased rate of student performance and possibly a designation of not meeting Adequate Yearly Progress for student participation (95%) and schools could become a District in Need of Improvement,” she said in an email. “Lastly, we understand we will lose funding if we don’t meet AYP and the consequences as being a School in Need of Improvement could become costly.”

Jeff Evoy, the Medina Central School superintendent, said Medina needs at least a 95 percent participation rate or it could be required to submit a plan for increased student participation and face other penalties.

The state’s teacher evaluation rates teachers as either highly effective, effective, developing and ineffective.

If a teacher was rated less than effective for two years, districts had the option of holding a hearing to dismiss the tenured teacher. If teachers are rated ineffective for three years, districts must now move to dismiss that teacher.

“I read that and my blood was boiling,” Michael Bonnewell, Albion school superintendent, told the Albion Rotary Club on Thursday.

He said the teacher evaluation law has taken some of the local control from districts.

“New York State shouldn’t tell us which teachers to hire and fire,” he said.

He also doesn’t support having so much of a teacher’s evaluation based on the standardized tests.

However, Bonnewell wants to see students take the tests. If 5 percent or more refuse, the district could lose some federal funding.

Refusing the tests poses a challenge for teacher evaluation scores, as well as the district, Christensen said.

“Currently, a portion of a teacher’s score is based upon growth shown on student exams,” she said. “Depending upon the number of students in a given classroom if the student participation is reduced, the growth value of each remaining student is actually increased.”

D’Angelo, the Holley superintendent, sees positives with Common Core in the district’s curriculum, for raising the rigor in the classroom. But he acknowledges the controversy in using the tests for evaluating students and teachers.

“It is the assessment piece that I personally believe to be what parents find objectionable and hopefully very soon everyone can come to an agreement on assessments,” he said.

Jason Smith, superintendent at Lyndonville Central School, said parents have valid concerns in the pressure the tests put on children, families and faculty.

“Learning is measured and demonstrated in so many ways and it is dangerous to overemphasize one test in Math and ELA,” Smith said in a letter to district residents.

However, Smith said the district supports the tests as a way to identify groups of students that may not be doing as well as their peers and school programs that may need additional attention when compared to others.

“The state assessments also allow us to benchmark our instructional programs against other districts from across New York State,” Smith said in his letter. “Without these data points, we lack a context to ensure that we are providing your children with the best possible education.”

The teacher evaluation standards were just changed in the new state budget and Gov. Cuomo wants to make the tests count for 50 percent of a teacher’s grade, up from the 20 percent placed on the test results.

The New York State United Teachers said changes in teacher evaluation and tenure laws are a “sham” and disgrace.

“NYSUT rejects this evaluation system,” the United Teachers said on March 31, when the budget was passed. “It is an unworkable, convoluted plan that undermines local control, disrespects principals and school administrators, guts collective bargaining and further feeds the testing beast. It does nothing to help students and will do nothing to foster the professional dialogue and collaboration that is essential to helping New York’s already strong teaching force become stronger. Ironically, this will only make it harder for school districts in impoverished communities to attract and retain the excellent teachers that students need and deserve.”

Testing has been in place in public schools in New York State since 1865, said Christensen, the Kendall superintendent. The original intent was to assess students for high school entrance and end-of course completion, she said.

“In 1966, we assessed students in grades 3, 6 and 9 on the Pupil Evaluation Program tests,” Christensen. “In 2006, students in grades 3-8 began yearly assessments in ELA and Math to gather data so teachers could provide specific interventions and instruction based upon student needs.”

The current state assessments are meant to measure growth in learning, she said.

“Some of the tests are new in their implementation, taking these will provide an opportunity for our students to become familiar with an increased level of rigor,” Christensen said.

Some teachers are outspoken against the tests, even urging parents to have their children refuse them.

“We have received messages from the state indicating possible repercussions to educators, up to and including loss of certification, if they are believed to have fostered civil disobedience and the opt out movement,” Christensen said. “Kendall Schools employ fantastic teachers that provide quality educational services to our children, the student results on the NYS assessments have demonstrated our teachers proficiency over the years.”

The tests will be given from April 14-16 and April 22-24.

“Our goal is not to incite anxiety in your child, but rather, instill an overall disposition of perseverance and confidence to tackle tasks that may be challenging,” Smith, the Lyndonville superintendent, said in a letter to parents. “These, we believe, are the lifelong lessons that can be learned from this assessment event. We believe that it is best to help students understand that although tests are an important challenge to be aware of, they are meant to be an opportunity to show others their personal best.”