Hundreds opt out

District, parents question value of state exams


After 20 percent of the students scheduled to take the New York state ELA exams “opted out” of the tests, the Rockville Centre Board of Education took an official stance against what it termed “high-stakes testing” at its meeting on April 17, calling on the state and federal governments to re-examine their reliance on testing for assessing student progress.

Of the 1,637 students in grades 3 through 8 who were scheduled to take the ELA test, 309 opted out on April 16, the first day of testing. That number grew to 328 the following day and 338 on April 18. The majority of those students — more than 200 — were students at South Side Middle School.

“We will probably not make Annual Yearly Progress,” said Superintendent Dr. William Johnson. “And we don’t know what the consequences for not meeting Annual Yearly Progress under these set of circumstances are.” Annual Yearly Progress is the portion of the federal No Child Left Behind Act that measures how much students improve year-to-year and determines where districts should allocate resources.

“You get a red X [if you don’t make AYP],” Johnson said. “And then the district has to put together some sort of correction plan. But if the kids aren’t taking the test, how do I correct that? It’s not that they’re not attending — they’re showing up and not taking the test. So what am I going to do? Arrest them?”

Students who opted out of the test were allowed to quietly read a book during the test period.

“We are doing this exactly as we believe it should be done under New York state law and regulation,” Johnson said. “In the New York state guidelines, there is a statement that says that when students complete their exam and hand in their paper, they can in fact sit for the balance of the testing period and read a book. So what we are permitting students to do, when they have made the decision not to take the exam, they give it to the teacher and they sit at their desk and read a book.”

Rockville Centre resident Karin Johnson chose to have her son Alex, an eighth-grader at South Side Middle School, opt out of the ELA test. Last year, the preparation for and hype surrounding the test were extremely stressful for her son, she said, to the point where it affected his work. When she heard that she would have the choice to opt him out, she decided to take it.

“I would have encouraged him to take the test if it was going to benefit the school in some way,” Karin Johnson said. “But I really did not get the sense that that was even the case. I do not have the sense that this is going to hurt the district in any way. And, in my opinion, the state can find another way to evaluate the school districts.”

She added that she was planning to have her son refrain from taking the math assessment as well, which was scheduled for this Wednesday through Friday, and that the school and the district did a good job of handling the students who did not take the ELA exam.

“We have a lot of support,” Karin Johnson said. “I didn’t have the sense that I had to worry about my son being made uncomfortable or anything like that.”

The superintendent stressed that the tests have no real bearing on students in Rockville Centre. But there is a possibility, Johnson said, that teachers could be affected, since student test scores are part of the new teacher evaluation model. “I don’t believe it’s going to have any effect on the teachers,” said Johnson. “But that remains to be seen, because we don’t know what the scores would have been for the kids who are refusing to take the exam, so we don’t know what the Growth Scores would have been for the teachers.”

The State Education Department said in a statement to the Herald that all students are expected to participate in the assessments.

“Three years ago, the Board of Regents adopted more rigorous standards and committed to reflect those standards in the state’s exams,” said Dennis Tompkins, an Education Department spokesman. “Parents who keep their children from taking these tests are essentially saying, ‘I don’t want to know where my child stands, in objective terms, on the path to college and career readiness’ — and we think that that’s doing them a real disservice.”

According to Johnson, the district has embraced the new Common Core Curriculum. He is even a proponent of standardized testing, he said — tests that are “done right,” which Johnson said these new state exams were not.

“I’ve been very supportive of the use of tests to help us in better understanding how schools should be structured and curriculums should be developed, yet I feel the state has gone too far and they won’t listen to us,” he said. “What’s troubling about this [movement] is that it’s pushing parents to the point of having their kids do things that are very problematic.

“It just bothers me very much that we’re at this point,” Johnson added, “and parents have to do this in order to wake up people in the State Education Department and/or legislators to do something different.”