More state tests, more opt-outs
CAPITAL REGION Parents continue to speak out against the Common Core learning standards as more students across the Capital Region opt out of the math exams administered this week.
Briana Bays, a parent with children in the Shenendehowa Central School District, said she decided to keep her children out of the exams after months of researching the Common Core and failing to identify evidence that the standards would better prepare students for college and careers.
“There are so many reasons why I have concerns about the Common Core,” she said. “Two of my children will be going into the [science, technology, engineering and math] fields, and this won’t prepare them for that. I’m just a mom who is really passionate about this and worried about the future of education in New York.”
This week third- through eighth-graders took the test statewide. A total of about 35,000 students in New York opted out of this year’s English exam earlier this month, according to data from New York State Allies for Public Education.
Common Core is a set of national learning standards that work to prepare students for college and a career. About 70 percent of students in New York failed the English and math exams last year based on the more difficult curriculum.
The state Education Department has faced widespread criticism over the Common Core. State lawmakers and education advocates have argued that it’s unfair to evaluate teachers based on student performance as high-need schools struggle to provide resources with limited state aid. Parents have complained that the exams are too demanding for students and that the Education Department should allow teachers to view the exams to help improve instruction.
At Shenendehowa, a total of 53 students refused to take the English and math exams. Shenendehowa has a total enrollment of 9,800. Students who are not taking the tests are asked to read and do work in the library.
“My son’s teacher actually created packets of work for him, and he is so excited to go to a separate room and learn,” Bays said. “My daughter also goes to a separate room and has the option to read or do homework.”
Last year, Ballston Spa Central School District had a sit-and-stare policy, where students stayed in the exam room but were not allowed to read or do homework. Superintendent Joe Dragone said the district got rid of that policy this year as the number of students opting out of the exams skyrocketed.
“Last year my child was made to sit and stare, and she said it was extremely uncomfortable,” said Katie Thimineur, a parent with children in Ballston Spa schools. “I did my best as a parent to work with the district and have them change that. It took almost five months, but now the students are able to go into another room and read.”
Five students in Ballston Spa opted out of the Common Core-based exams last year, Dragone said. This year, a total of 50 students are not taking the math exam this week. That’s out of a total of 4,322 students in the district.
“We had five students last year who remained in the testing room because we had no other process in place at the time,” he said. “We don’t want to disrupt the testing environment for students and teachers.”
Dragone said issues surrounding the Common Core have turned into a political battle, with the focus shifting from learning to winning. He said faculty members are not driven by the assessments, which are only a piece of the school experience.
“The argument is less about the teaching and learning and more about the political feud,” he said. “The hardest thing I do now every day is to make sure our staff knows that we support them. Energy is going into trying to convince the other side that they are wrong, but the energy of our staff is to continue to get better at teaching and learning. That is our mission.”
In Schenectady schools, 18 students opted out of the math exam this week. That’s double the number of students who didn’t take the English exam earlier this month. The Schenectady City School District has a total of nearly 10,000 students.
Superintendent Laurence Spring said the district doesn’t have a lot of children opting out compared to schools in Saratoga County because parents are more focused on learning and less focused on standardized testing.
“Opt out does seem to happen where there is more success,” Spring said. “Our performance history is not Saratoga’s. We don’t wrestle with that. The concerns our parents have are if we are feeding the students, along with safety and learning. Parents of children in Schenectady have significant life concerns they are worried about on a daily basis.”
At the Greater Amsterdam School District, Superintendent Thomas Perillo said seven students are not taking the math exam, and those children are staying home as the test is being administered.
“I understand where some parents are coming from and feel the tests are too difficult,” Perillo said. “What we have done is tried to impress upon the students and the parents to come to school, take the exam and do the best that they can. I think we did a good job getting that message out to our parents, and that’s why we have a fewer number of opt-outs compared to other districts.”
At Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake Central School District, more than 40 students opted out of the English and math exams. That’s about 1.2 percent of the 3,221 students in the district.
Victoria Lizor, who has a third-grader in Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake opting out of the math exam this week, said she doesn’t believe the Common Core correctly measures her son’s learning as a special education student.
“I think the standards are a one-size-fits-all document and students learn differently, and that’s especially so for my son, who has autism,” Lizor said. “I think the state needs to have educators be a part of developing the curriculum for our state and take it out of corporate hands.”
There is also a group called BH-BL Parent Advocates for Education, which meets once a month for parents to discuss their concerns about the Common Core curriculum. A similar group in Clifton Park is also gearing up to advocate against the standards this month.
All of the parents agreed that they would like to see state legislators, particularly members of the Senate, take action and push for changes to the Common Core. Two months ago the state Assembly passed a bill calling for a two-year delay.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has touted reforms to the Common Core since its rollout that “eliminates high stakes for students on this year’s tests.” Changes include a ban on test scores being printed on students’ records and also calls on districts not to use scores toward decisions such as grade promotion and placement.
“Raising the bar for New York’s schools is critical to preparing our children for the future — but the Common Core must be implemented correctly so that parents and students have confidence in the changes taking place in our classrooms,” Cuomo said in a statement.
A total of 44 states in the country have adopted the Common Core standards. Indiana was the first to recently drop the standards all together. Thimineur said she would like to see a complete overhaul of the standards.
“I would love to see a full repeal of the Common Core,” Thimineur said. “At this point I don’t foresee that in the near future, so I would at least like to see a two-year delay. We need more local control, because we are losing our rights as parents.”