Students chime in as debate swirls around state tests - The Buffalo News
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Students chime in as debate swirls around state tests

Everywhere we turn, we seem to hear or read about the Common Core and state tests. Photos of “Common Core Math” and poorly worded homework questions circle the Internet, bringing negative comments and critics wherever they go. Adults can’t seem to stop talking about the new standards and what they believe to be best for children, but few have looked at what the students have to say.

The New York Constitution states that “The Legislature shall provide for the maintenance and support of a system of free common schools, wherein all the children of this state may be educated.” One way to ensure that all children are educated effectively is through standardized tests, which have been administered for elementary-age students in New York since 1998.

In the last few years, a push for parents to have their children opt out of the testing has swelled due to concerns such as mining data, putting too much pressure on kids, tying the tests to teacher evaluations and spending time preparing for tests. By referring to the movement as opting out, it makes it seem like the State Department of Education makes not taking the exams an option, but if fewer than 95 percent of students take the test, the school’s federal funding for the district could be in jeopardy.

So then, what does opting out really mean? In reality, what kids are doing is refusing to take the test. So what’s the draw, then, if it has potential negative repercussions for the schools?

Shea Munnikhuysen, an eighth-grader at Wilson Middle School, was one of those students who decided to refuse both the state ELA and math exams last year, and is ready to do the same again this year. When asked why, she said, “The state is giving all of these tests that don’t affect your grade, the school doesn’t pay for it, it’s expensive, and your grade affects teachers’ jobs.”

When it came time to take the exams last year, Shea kept quiet about the fact that she wasn’t participating, and when it was distributed, she didn’t take it. She described sitting in the room and staring at the wall for 90 minutes. She wasn’t allowed to read or do anything else due to the “sit and stare” policy for students who refuse to take the tests.

Some schools have decided not to enact the “sit and stare” policy this year.

Shea said her teachers seemed indifferent about the fact that she refused. Comments from her peers, however, were supportive, and Shea recalls them saying things like, “you’re so lucky.”

“I explained why I didn’t take the test to them, and they agreed,” she said.

Jake Helmer, a fifth-grader at Culver Creek Elementary School, said that since the implementation of the Common Core, “math from grade to grade has started to connect more than it used to” and that it connects to “real world stuff” such as debit and credit cards. He also mentioned that a lot more science and social studies are taught in the classroom.

Jake will be taking the assessments this year, and said that compared to two years ago, last year’s exams “had more questions on stuff we don’t know.” Another difference he noted was not being able to go back and reread stories on the ELA exam.

A total of 400 minutes of testing for students in grades 3 through 8 will be endured over six days this month.

Jake said he remembers having “too much time” to complete the tests last year, but emphasized that “important things take time.”

Nina Stockman, an eighth-grader at Kenmore Middle School, said that the tests aren’t “a big deal” and that she and her friends “didn’t even realize they were coming this week.”

There also are concerns that the Common Core will encourage more teachers to teach to the tests, but Nina says that compared to other years, time spent preparing for the assessments has been “way less. In the past, we did a bunch of practice tests. Now, I feel like what we’re learning in class is getting us ready really well.”

Though Nina seems content with the new standards, she mentioned that “we lose a lot of class time for these tests each spring. There are too many tests. I wish we could take one that included more subject areas than a whole bunch of little ones.”

Skylar Munnikhuysen, a sixth-grader at Wilson Middle School, decided to refuse to take the tests because the assessments “do nothing to help my teachers know if I am learning and they never see the tests again.”

What about high schoolers who have taken these assessments in the past, before the opt-out movement? Where do they stand on this issue?

Karisa Langridge, a sophomore at Wilson High School, admitted that she hadn’t heard anything about the opt-out movement but said she would have refused “because the demands from the state are getting more and more ridiculous and the test has become harder.”

When prompted if stories such as “The Pineapple and the Hare” that featured opinion questions in multiple-choice format on the eighth-grade exam that Karisa took two years ago (and stirred much controversy) guided her decision, she said it didn’t. Instead, she said “misleading questions” like “best answer” and “opinion” questions helped her to come to her conclusion.

Sara Kress, also a sophomore at Wilson High School, disagreed with Karisa.

“I don’t think that I would have opted out,” Sara said. “The tests help determine skill levels so if you are below the standard level and need the extra help or you are above the standard level and need more of a challenge, the student gets what they need.

“ The test is something that I have always just had to take, so it’s not really that big of a deal to me.”

Anna Kane is a sophomore at Wilson High School.

“We lose a lot of class time for these tests each spring. There are too many tests. I wish we could take one that included more subject areas than a whole bunch of little ones.” – Nina Stockman

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