Opt-out movement gains traction across the region - The Buffalo News
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Opt-out movement gains traction across the region

Aboycott movement that has turned state standardized tests into a battleground is dividing school districts across the region and drawing the attention of state education leaders.

Roughly 7 percent of students in third through eighth grade in Erie and Niagara counties refused to take a state English exam earlier this month.

But in some districts, 15 to 28 percent of the students who should have taken the exam did not pick up their No. 2 pencils.

State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. last week called the students and parents who opted out across the state a “small but meaningful percentage.”

And the number of students who have opted out has frustrated some administrators, who felt caught between state regulations and angry parents while they struggled with what to do with the children who sat out the tests.

“If the state is going to impose test regulations, there needs to be clearer expectations,” said Orchard Park Superintendent Matthew McGarrity. “It pits districts against districts.”

The parents behind the movement give a variety of reasons for opting out. Some are educators who are upset that the exams are being used to measure how teachers and schools perform. Some are concerned that subjects such as social studies and art are being edged out as schools focus on preparing students for math and English exams. Others cite the stress their children feel during six days of testing each spring.

But the goal of the parents is clear: to scale back the number of state standardized exams that are tied to teacher evaluations and school performance.

“It is making a political statement that we’re not going to let our children be used to evaluate teachers,” said Chris Cerrone, a Springville resident who frequently blogs about anti-testing efforts and who directed his two elementary school children to refuse the state English assessment this month.

Like many of the parents whose children opted out of the exams, Cerrone is also a teacher. But when Cerrone speaks out against testing, he said, he speaks as a parent concerned that his children receive a “well-rounded education.”

“It’s also to throw a monkey wrench into the system,” Cerrone said. “If a statistical number of students do boycott, then the tests are not valid for the purposes to judge a school or teachers, and I think that’s part of what we’re trying to accomplish.”

Standardized tests have been required by federal No Child Left Behind education law for years. But an overhaul of learning standards and a decision to use the scores for a portion of teacher evaluations have fueled concerns over the way the tests are shaping public education.

The parents’ message appears to have been heard in Albany.

King, in a speech at New York University last week, said a “small but meaningful percentage of parents and students” who opted out of the new state assessments had “made their voices heard even if they are now denying themselves and their teachers the opportunity to know how their children are performing against a common benchmark used throughout the state.”

King grouped the test refusals in with a long list of noisy protests over education – from the ouster of New York State United Teachers President Richard Iannuzzi last week to a series of public forums dominated by complaints over state education policy last fall.

“I try to focus on outcomes for students and to leave ideology and politics aside,” King said. “These days, however, New York politics seems to be all about education, and it’s hard to find any agreements on facts – let alone policy. And it’s also hard to see where everyone stands.”

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, meanwhile, has opened the door to scaling back the use of the state standardized tests to evaluate teachers. He told reporters earlier this month after signing the budget that lawmakers need to address the issue by the end of the State Legislature session.

The remarks were a notable shift from Cuomo’s previous efforts to scale back the teacher evaluation system – which uses the state standardized tests for 20 percent of a teacher’s score.

As lawmakers debate what, if anything, they will do in response to the growing number of parents who direct their children not to take the state exams, local school administrators are left to face parents at school board meetings. That has frustrated some administrators attempting to navigate between community concerns and state rules.

“Our parents have made a decision for their children, and we respect that, but I think the bigger issue is with State Ed, and I would hope that parents, and whatever organization or group that they’re working with, could continue their message to Albany,” said Lake Shore Superintendent James Przepasniak.

About 25 percent of the 1,135 third- through eighth-grade students in Lake Shore opted out of the English exam.

“At the local level, we have very little control over New York State testing,” Przepasniak said. “So I do feel that, in some cases, our teachers, our principals and our school district are being put in the middle of a major issue over which we have very little control.”

School districts across Erie and Niagara counties had wide ranges of the number of students who opted out. In Buffalo, where 208 students refused the English exam, those opt-outs accounted for less than 2 percent of the 15,466 third- through eighth-graders. At the other end of the spectrum, West Seneca had 28 percent of its 3,087 third- through eighth-graders sit out the test.

In Starpoint, where 8 percent of the students refused the English Language Arts exam, the district had to hire substitute teachers to look after the students not taking the test.

The districts have taken different approaches for how to deal with students whose parents told them not to take the tests. While some allowed students to read, others required them to sit quietly during the entire length of the exams.

“Some are very sympathetic, and some are not,” Cerrone said. “It’s unfortunate because the state Education Department and the commissioner have not given the districts any clear guidance on how to handle the opt-out movement and kind of left the local districts hanging in the wind.”

Like other school administrators, Starpoint Superintendent C. Douglas Whelan said he was concerned about what impact the test refusals would have on his district. “I don’t think they fully understand the ramifications,” he said of parents who opted out, explaining that the purpose of the tests is to gather data to see if students are learning.

Orchard Park’s McGarrity said, “We’re not panicking, but as time goes on, where is this going to end? How far does it go? I think we need to put the energy in a direction that is going to make a difference.”

News Staff Reporters Karen Robinson, Aaron Besecker and Barbara O’Brien contributed to this report.

Opting out

West Seneca and Lake Shore had the highest percentage of students refusing to take state exams in English

School District / Number of students refusing exam / 3-8 grade enrollment / Percent of students refusing test

West Seneca 877 3,087 28.41%

Lake Shore 287 1,135 25.29%

Wilson 120 562 21.35%

Springville-Griffith 151 833 18.13%

Alden 136 800 17.00%

Hamburg 269 1,718 15.66%

East Aurora 137 882 15.53%

Note: Amherst, Cheektowaga-Sloan, Iroquois, Lackawanna and Niagara Wheatfield school districts did not provide results.

Saying no to state testing

The percentage of students refusing to take state exams in English ranged widely in Erie and Niagara county districts.

School District / Number of students refusing exam / 3-8 grade enrollment / Percent of students refusing test

Erie County

Akron 30 695 4.32%

Alden 136 800 17.00%

Buffalo 208 15,466 1.34%

Cheektowaga 7 908 0.77%

Cheektowaga-Maryvale 35 982 3.56%

Clarence 71 2184 3.25%

Cleveland Hill 37 649 5.70%

Depew 64 833 7.68%

East Aurora 137 882 15.53%

Eden Central 49 676 7.25%

Frontier 272 2,230 12.20%

Grand Island 47 1,379 3.41%

Hamburg 269 1,718 15.66%

Holland 24 407 5.90%

Kenmore-Tonawanda 210 3,227 6.51%

Lake Shore 28 1,135 25.29%

Lancaster 200 2,728 7.33%

North Collins 20 276 7.25%

Orchard Park 248 2,388 10.39%

Springville-Griffith 151 833 18.13%

City of Tonawanda 117 780 15.00%

West Seneca 877 3,087 28.41%

Williamsville 263 4,816 5.46%

Total 3,759 49,079 7.66%

Niagara County

Barker Central 1 361 0.28%

Lewiston-Porter 30 1,037 2.89%

City of Lockport 43 1,981 2.17%

Newfane 29 749 3.87%

City of Niagara Falls 73 3,138 2.33%

City of North Tonawanda 63 1,600 3.94%

Royalton-Hartland 40 631 6.34%

Starpoint 107 1,215 8.81%

Wilson 120 562 21.35%

Total 505 11,274 4.47%

NOTE: Amherst, Cheektowaga-Sloan, Iroquois, Lackawanna and Niagara-Wheatfield school districts did not respond to requests for their participation. email: djgee@buffnews.com

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