Students opting out of state testing fill the cafeteria at West Elementary in West Seneca Tuesday, April 14, 2015. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)
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Thousands of students have refused to take state standardized tests Tuesday in the Buffalo Niagara region, the first day of English Language Arts tests given to third through eighth graders across New York State this week.

The number of students refusing to participate is expected to grow significantly over the 60,000 statewide who refused to take the tests last year.

The rate reached 70 percent Tuesday in the West Seneca School District, where 2,074 of 2,976 eligible students refused testing. Rates at individual schools ranged from 50 percent at Northwood Elementary School to 83 percent at Allendale Elementary.

Last year, the district-wide refusal rate in West Seneca was approximately 30 percent.

“I think it’s the ongoing frustration in the minds of many parents,” said School Superintendent Mark J. Crawford.

Despite the increased emphasis on the federally required tests for students in grades three through eight, which also include math testing next week, parents aren’t getting any results. “They don’t get any feedback,” Crawford said.

“The other part of it is they don’t want their kids’ performance ... being used to evaluate the teachers,” Crawford continued.

Student performance could affect whether a teacher receives a bonus; parents see that as an “illegitimate use of their kids’ performance on a standardized test,” Crawford said.

Lake Shore

Lake Shore School District officials still are tallying the numbers, but estimated more than half of the 1,001 students in third through eighth grades decided to opt out of this week’s test.

“We’re going to be over 50 percent and that’s about where we were last year, as well,” said Superintendent James Przepasniak.

“I am not surprised,” he said. “I believe that the parents groups, the teachers groups have been communicating to parents through many means and I think our parents are more aware of the options they have.”

While the district was still compiling numbers, the superintendent thought the percentage of refusals at the Middle School was higher than at the elementary schools. The older students are probably better able to convince their parents that they didn’t want to take the test, like many of their classmates, Przepasniak said.

“I don’t know for certain that’s what they’re saying to parents, but that’s probably what’s going on,” he said.

As for those students not taking the tests, they were allowed to read curriculum-related books in the classroom, or in the case of one elementary school – in the school cafeteria, which was more conducive, the superintendent said.

Springville-Griffith Institute

At Springville-Griffith Institute schools, more than 40 percent of students – about 340 – opted out, according to Superintendent Paul Connelly.

For the last three years, Connelly said, he has been urging state education leaders to give local districts clear guidance on what to do about students who opt out and lay out what the real consequences of having large numbers of students refusing tests.

However, he doesn’t believe the state would take away aid or take other drastic measures.

But he does thinks the large numbers of refusals will deliver a message.

“The political symbolism involved is the biggest takeaway,” Connelly said.

Elsewhere around the region, just shy of half of third through eight graders in Lackawanna schools – 186 students – refused to take the ELA tests Tuesday.

Refusal rates at or above 50 percent are anticipated for middle school students in the Frontier and Hamburg School Districts, sources have estimated.

Nearly all seventh and eighth graders at Lovejoy Discovery reportedly didn’t take the tests, and small numbers of students in other Buffalo elementary and middle schools also opted out. Anti-testing advocates pointed out that last year, very few children refused tests in Buffalo Public Schools.

At the Maryvale School District in Cheektowaga, 19 percent of students did not take the ELA tests.

Kenmore-Tonawanda schools

The number in the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda School District is expected to be released later Tuesday. There, School Board members had considered – but ultimately rejected – proposals for the whole district to boycott testing and teacher evaluations.

State Education Department officials reacted to the boycott proposal with a threat to remove Ken-Ton School Board members from office.

This week, the New York State School Boards Association issued a legal notice for school boards on “Managing State Assessment Opt Outs.” The president of the state teachers’ union had called for all parents to refuse testing for their children.

The School Boards Association noted that the assessment tests are required by federal law and that failure to comply could result in the loss of Title 1 and other federal funding.

It also stated that school district officials are bound by an oath of office that requires them to comply with legal requirements affecting district operations – including the administration of state assessments. While school board members could face removal from office for failure to administer state assessments, administrators who follow that path are subject to potential loss of certification.

The association also reiterated the state Education Department’s statement that there’s no provision in statute or regulation allowing parents to opt their children out of state tests.

“School district officials need to weigh carefully how they respond to parental decisions to have their children opt out of state examinations,” NYSSBA advised. “Some district responses could have negative legal and financial consequences for both the district and school district officials.”

Though teachers have a stake in the outcome, Crawford said parents opposed to standardized testing in West Seneca organized through social media. “They are masters of social media; they are tweeting and they are on Facebook,” Crawford said.

“I have not advocated to any parent that they opt out,” Crawford said. When someone asks, he said he replies: “That’s a decision you need to make.”

Districts that do not have at least 95 percent of their eligible students take the assessments are marked as failing to meet “adequate yearly progress.”

In West Seneca, testing began at about 8 a.m. Tuesday for middle school students, and between 9 and 9:30 a.m. for elementary students. Test durations run between 40 and 70 minutes.

For those students whose parents chose to refuse testing, that time was spent in a separate area, either reading or working on other learning activities, Crawford said.

At Springville-Griffiths two elementary schools and middle school, parents were told several weeks ago that if they let the district know their child would opt out ahead of time, the child would be allowed to go to another room and read. Those who opted out at the last minute would have to “sit and stare” quietly in the room while their fellow students took the tests.

But NYSSBA’s legal notice had this to say about district’s laying out their own policies: “The legality of this option is questionable to the extent that it seems to dispense with a school district’s obligation to administer a test to every student.”

Across the state

High opt-out numbers were seen elsewhere around the state, as many parents ignored the urging of everyone from the state Education Department to the chancellor of the state university system to have their children take the exams. The Journal News in Westchester County reported many districts in the lower Hudson Valley had 25 percent or more of students opt-out; Mahopac in Putnam County had an exam refusal rate of 50 percent.

On Long Island, Newsday reported, there were record numbers of students declining to take the ELA exams Monday in some districts. Rockville Center, home of Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, a Nassau County Republican, had an opt-out rate of 60 percent, the paper reported.

Among New Yorkers keeping their children from Tuesday’s testing was Rob Astorino, the Westchester County executive and last year’s Republican gubernatorial candidate.

“Today, Sheila and I join over 100,000 parents across New York in opting our children out of the Common Core tests, as is our right,” Astorino said in a statement Tuesday morning. “Our kids deserve better than Common Core, an experiment conceived in secrecy with no public hearings or testing.”

Astorino said the tests will not lead to higher learning standards for public school children, and he blasted a program that he said kept K-12 teachers from involvement in writing the standards that are, he said, “developmentally inappropriate” in the early grades.

Astorino called on Gov. Andrew Cuomo, lawmakers and state education officials to restore local control of schools. “Common Core needs to be replaced with better standards developed with input from teachers and parents and vetted and tested in a fully transparent process,” he said.

The Cuomo administration had no comment Tuesday morning on the high refusal rates seen in some Western New York school districts.

Officials with the New York State United Teachers – the teachers’ union, the School Boards Association and the New York State Council of School Superintendents all said the situation was still too fluid Tuesday morning to comment. A survey of districts across the state is planned for Thursday to determine the refusal level in the first of two weeks of standardized testing.

Albany Bureau Chief Tom Precious and Staff News Reporters Janice L. Habuda and Jay Rey contributed to this report.

email: citydesk@buffnews.com

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