Mains: State Assessments Encouraged, But Not Required

As grades 3-8 English language arts assessments are being administered to students statewide, some confusion has arisen among parents as to whether their children are required to take the exams.

Though some parents throughout the state have opted to have their children refuse the exams, a letter sent to parents within the Jamestown Public Schools district last month appeared to suggest this was not an option.

The letter, dated March 21, was sent from the office of Superintendent Tim Mains as a means of assisting parents with helping their children prepare for the tests. In his letter, Mains compared the assessments to the Regents exams in the sense that all school districts are required to administer them by both the state and federal government.

“Contrary to what some have claimed, they are not optional,” the letter reads in part. “They are an essential means for us to measure how well we are doing at delivering the curriculum to your children. Besides telling you how well your child is learning, the scores tell us how well our schools and teachers are supporting your child’s progress.”

Multiple parents contacted The Post-Journal saying the letter gave them the impression they were not permitted to allow their children to refuse to take the tests, despite the fact that they had heard of instances where students were doing just that.

According to the state’s school administrators manual, all students are expected to participate in the assessments as part of the core academic program. Students who do not participate in an assessment are reported to the state as “not tested.” Schools do not have any obligation to provide an alternate location or activities for individual students while the tests are being administered.

Jonathan Burman, spokesman for the New York State Education Department, said students should be encouraged to take the exams to help the state track its overall implementation of the Common Core Learning Standards.

“State assessments offer an opportunity for educators and parents to gauge the progress a child is making toward the standards,” Burman said. “Why wouldn’t a parent want to know how well his or her child is doing? This year, like last year, the parents of more than a million students across the state will ‘opt-in’ to find that out. We want to make sure they have the best possible opportunity to demonstrate what they’ve learned.”

Mains said he holds a similar view of the assessments, and that the exams are a crucial part of the instructional cycle.

“We would like to have data points on every single child that we have enrolled in JPS,” Mains said. “If somebody is ill, or can’t attend school for whatever reason, we understand that; but our goal is to try to have everybody participate because that gives us the data we need. In an ideal world, nobody would ever be absent.”

Mains said the instructional cycle starts with planning, which is then followed by teaching, assessing and responding to the assessments before returning to the planning phase for the next cycle.

“It troubles me that the assessments are getting a bad name as though they don’t have a place in schools or, as some people claim, there is too much of it,” Mains said. “There certainly is more assessment today than there was 20 years ago, but that’s because we’ve gotten better at it and it’s more refined for us to be able to do ‘formative’ assessments.”

Mains also classified the exams as “assessment for learning” as opposed to “assessment of learning,” and as low-stakes testing they will have no impact on students’ overall placement or grades.

“My letter purposefully tried to take an upbeat approach to say these are helpful and important,” he said. “And if a student does not perform well, it’s not the kid’s failure; it’s the system’s failure. In Jamestown, we never use the results of these tests to determine whether a child goes to the next grade. In that way, they are dramatically different from the Regents exams.”

The grades 3-8 ELA assessments are being administered through today, while the grades 3-8 mathematics assessments will be administered from April 30-May 2. Burman said absences from all or part of the assessments should be managed consistent with the attendance policies of the district.