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Opting out of testing gaining favor with parents More question reliability, benefits of state measures

A small but growing number of local parents are deciding to have their children opt out of the state standardized tests in English and math.

Some parents say they don't want their children subjected to the stress tied to the tests. Others say they are protesting a school climate they say has become too focused on standardized tests, at the expense of critical thinking, hands-on learning and nontested subjects -- from art to social studies.

And some say they don't believe the tests are even reliable.

"It's all about the test scores. I've seen so much time and so much money spent on this. And they're not really a valid measure of student progress," said Chris Cerrone, a social studies teacher who kept his own third-grade daughter home from state tests last week.

Cerrone and other local parents like him point to problems with specific test questions in New York State that have come to light during the past few days.

Last week, students and teachers complained about questions on the eighth-grade English test that were based on a reading passage that put a twist on a well-known fable. The modern version highlighted in the test features a pineapple and a hare, rather than a tortoise and a hare.

The pineapple challenges the hare to a race, and then is eaten by animals in the forest after losing the race. Multiple-choice test questions asked students, among other things, why the animals ate the pineapple, and how the animals felt toward the pineapple.

In response to the complaints, state Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. decided not to count the six questions toward test scores.

Some people's confidence in the state tests sunk even lower this week, when state Education Department officials told principals that one question on the fourth-grade math test had two right answers. And a question on the eighth-grade test had no right answer.

Department spokesman Tom Dunn said the errors were typos, and the questions would not count toward the test scores.

A growing chorus of parents, teachers and administrators across the state notes that the state has outsourced the testing to Pearson, a company with a $32 million contract, and calling for accountability.

That frustration is feeding the growing parent movement to opt out of the tests.

"A lot of it has to do with trust from the field on how these tests are being put together, and by whom," said Springville Superintendent Paul Connelly. "What we know for sure is the state Education Department is being shrunk and shrunk and shrunk. You can't even get anybody to answer the telephone half the time. They just don't have the staff. Things get lost, and they fall through the cracks."

In Connelly's district, eight children -- including Cerrone's daughter -- opted out of the testing last week and this week.

In some cases, parents pull their children out of school during the times the tests are being given. The English test was given over three days last week, with 90 minutes devoted to it each day. The same amount of time will be spent on the math test this week -- for a total of nine hours of testing for the two subjects for children in third through eighth grades.

Other parents send their children to school, but have them leave the answer sheets blank.

Pamela Szalay's 11-year-old son spent the test periods at his Williamsville middle school singing songs in his head, looking at the clock, reading test questions -- doing anything but answering the test questions.

Szalay, a substitute teacher, said she objects to the emphasis schools put on test preparation, at the expense of things like social studies -- her son's favorite subject.

"I just think it's watering down education. I think it's missing the point," she said. "It's almost like you're being asked to guess what the test maker was thinking."

Parents said that if a child leaves the answer sheet blank, the school does not score it.

Szalay decided to have her son opt out of testing after she read an opinion piece Cerrone wrote for The Buffalo News on the topic. Until then, she said, she did not know opting out was possible.

Jonathan Burman, a spokesman for the state Education Department, said the state has no way of knowing how many students are opting out across New York. Anecdotal reports locally suggest there are only a handful of such cases in various districts.

Cerrone writes a blog about the issue, at, and has become something of a leader locally among parents wanting to opt out. He says he has heard from parents who are having their children opt out of tests in Williamsville, Springville, Lewiston-Porter and Fredonia.

But it's the first time in many districts that students have opted out.

"Nobody likes standardized tests, and right now, the tests are going crazy," Connelly said. "I think the frustration is recognized. But I'm fearful of what the implications may be."

Under a state law that takes effect for the 2012-13 school year, all teachers must be evaluated using a 100-point scale, of which either 20 or 40 points -- depending on subject and grade -- are tied to student improvement on tests.

Cerrone, who teaches social studies at Hamburg Middle School, acknowledged that keeping children out of tests could negatively affect the overall performance of students in a teacher's class, if those students tend to perform well academically.

"My daughter is strong in writing. So will that lower her teacher's overall score? Yes, it will," he said. "But I think overall, teachers are supportive of this. I think most educators see this as a helpful step to end the high-stakes testing that's going on."

Burman noted that the tests are a federal requirement that have been in place for several years, under No Child Left Behind. Schools can be designated "in need of improvement" if 5 percent or more of any subgroup do not take the test.

"The Regents have advanced a reform agenda with the straightforward goal of ensuring that all students graduate high school ready for college and careers," he said. "New York's tests are designed to generate information that will help teachers, principals and parents so that our students can achieve that goal.

"It is a mistake for parents to keep their children from taking these tests."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.