In school districts across New York State these days, many parents and students face a complicated choice: to take, or refuse to take, the state-mandated standardized testing that’s been adopted in
The test refusal movement, or “opt-out,” gained popularity in 2015 when New York State announced that ELA (English Language Arts) and math state test scores for students in grades three through eight would be used to grade schools, teachers and administrators.
Many people, including parents, faculty and administrators felt that grading school faculty for the whole year based on kids’ scores from three to four days of testing was an inappropriate unit of measurement, so students and parents began “opting-out” of the state tests.
“These annual ELA and math tests for students in grades three through eight are required by the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) of 2015,” said Gene Mancuso, superintendent of schools for Honeoye Falls-Lima Central School District. “The tests are designed to measure how well students are mastering the learning standards that guide classroom instruction and help to ensure that students are on track to graduate from high school with the critical thinking, problem solving and reasoning skills needed for success in college and the modern workplace.”
Jeffrey Crane, superintendent for the West Irondequoit Central School District, adds that the state tests were primarily used to inform subsequent instruction so that teachers and administrators could figure out how to improve future education based on the trends they saw in the students’ test scores.
State tests for third through eighth graders also ready them for life’s future tests whether that be Regents tests in high school or certification exams in college.
“The (grade) three through eight exams prepare students, in a non-graded way, for the rigor and stamina required to be successful on Regents exams,” said Kathryn Colicchio, assistant superintendent for student achievement and accountability for the Greece Central School District. “Many students will take their first Regents in eighth grade, and they will not be able to opt out of that since they are graduation requirements.”
Some superintendents, like Crane, stepped in and assured teachers that these tests would not affect their job security.
“As a superintendent, I said to teachers, ‘don’t worry; I will not use the test scores (to grade your overall performance). I refuse to use these tests in this way,’” said Crane. “Teachers are hardworking and dedicated and felt as if the tests were being unfairly used. And they were right, in my opinion.”
Today, local schools around Rochester are still facing innumerable test refusals, but the numbers seem to be declining steadily. The West Irondequoit district currently rests at roughly a 30 percent refusal rate, according to Crane.
In the HF-L district, the percentage of students refusing to take the ELA state test this year in grades three through eight ranges from 13.5 percent to 27 percent. For math, the refusal percentage for grades three through eight ranges from 10 percent to 28 percent. ELA assessment refusals in the Greece hover around 38 percent, while students opting out of the math exam rest at 36 percent.
There have been significant changes to the state tests in order to make the assessments fairer and to reduce refusals. This year, instead of three days each for testing math and ELA, there were two days for each exam. Furthermore, students have unlimited time to work on the tests, which can be viewed as both a positive and a negative.
“Certain types of kids are going to take as much time as they are given to make sure they’ve done as best they can, which I honor,” said Crane. “Except, I don’t really feel like it’s appropriate for a kid to be testing from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. And some kids have done that in our district this year.”
Teachers are also more involved in the test in terms of evaluating the appropriateness of the questions and the number of questions. With pressure from the state to hit 95 percent participation in state exams, teachers and administrators are diligently trying to encourage parents and students to not opt out of the assessments.
“Locally, our principals talk about the fact that we use these tests primarily— and we always have—to inform subsequent instruction,” said Crane. “These are just one of many assessments that we do throughout the year to make sure that we’re maximizing our kids’ learning.”
Mancuso adds that parents are reminded that state tests have been part of the New York State education system since the Board of Regents adopted standardized exams in 1864. But with refusal rates still much higher than 5 percent, Crane voices his concern to how this could have detrimental effects on schools’ funding. If a school has less than 95 percent participation, the school’s report card as evaluated by the state will suffer. A lousy report card could lead to lower funding for that school.
“We have to continue to fine-tune these tests so as to allow youngsters to take the exams, do the best that they can and finish out their day in regular school,” said Crane.