Opt-Outs Are Minimal Locally

Editor’s Note: It is the policy of the Jamestown Public Schools and Tim Mains, Jamestown Public Schools superintendent, that state tests are not optional. A headline in a story earlier this week attributed an

encouraged, but not required, stance to Mains.

While the number of students refusing to take grades 3-8 state assessments is rising, that trend does not appear to have caught on in southern Chautauqua County.

Despite reports of an astonishingly high percentage of test refusals in Erie County and parts of northern Chautauqua County, local school districts are reporting a disproportionately small number of students “opting out” of this week’s English Language Arts exams.

“We were pretty fortunate,” said Michael Mansfield, superintendent of Bemus Point Central School, who reported only four refusals in his district.

Bert Lictus, superintendent of Clymer Central School and Panama Central School, said there were only eight refusals between the two districts.

“In the districts I represent, (the number of refusals) has been very minor,” he said. “The parents in the districts I work for have been very supportive of their schools, and just went about it the way they do every other year.”

This was not the case at Fredonia Central School, where 131 students refused the exam. Superintendent Paul DiFonzo said the district’s rate of refusal increased by 18 percent this year, which he attributed to the community’s awareness of the Common Core Learning Standards.

“The numbers are up, but I think if you look at what’s being said in the media, what’s happened when (Education Department Commissioner John King) has gone to different communities and had his chats, I think you have seen a lot of unrest about the Common Core,” DiFonzo said earlier this week. “I think parents are concerned and, in some cases, there is misinformation and misunderstanding regarding the Common Core initiative. Fredonia is not alone in this issue. We use these tests as one of several measures of student achievement, and I would hope that most parents would see the value in having their children take the tests.”

This year marks the second in which schools statewide have administered the assessments, which are aligned to the curriculum contained in the Common Core. Due to an inconsistent rollout of the curriculum within schools, the results from last year’s assessments reflected a sharp decline in student achievement – a side effect which was strongly anticipated among school leaders and the state Education Department.

Subsequently, the assessments, in conjunction with severe criticism of the Common Core itself, are drawing the ire of select groups of parents throughout the state who say the state is placing too much emphasis on testing. Others say the assessments are too stressful for their children and, with the knowledge that they have the opportunity to opt their children out of the exams, it only makes sense to do so.

One parent who chose to opt her child out of this week’s ELA exams was Kim Meleen, the mother of an eighth-grader in the Chautauqua Lake Central School district.

“Every year, the week before and the week of the exams, my daughter would be sick to her stomach and stressed out; and it was just awful,” said Meleen. “She had struggled with tests anyway, so her dad and I decided to opt her out.”

“It’s been a very positive thing, and we’re going to have her opt out of the math one, too,” she added. “And, seeing how much better she is without taking (the exams), I can’t wait for her to refuse the math one because it’s nice not to see her so stressed out. I think the kids are just burned out, and that’s not right. I don’t think they should have to feel that way.”

Elizabeth Bowers, the mother of an eighth-grader in the Bemus Point Central School district, said she opted her daughter out of the exams and, as a result, more students followed suit.

“I think there will be more refusing on the next round of testing as parents realize that they have the right to refuse the test,” Bowers said. “Parents are astounded that they have that right. Our district told a group of parents at a Common Core meeting that all students are mandated to take the test and could not opt out. (The district) may be mandated to give the test but the students are not mandated to take the test.”

Bowers said she feels the tests are a waste of time due to their quality and the amount of preparation students must go through before taking them.

“The school is not allowed to preview the test, and do not give back the test to the children to learn from,” she said. “We are only given a score and a very general statement of what to work on.”

According to the Education Department’s school administrators manual, there is no means by which students are forced to take the exams. Furthermore, the manual then states that any actions taken against students for their refusal to take the tests is discretionary on a per-district basis.

“All students are expected to participate in state assessments as part of the core academic program,” the manual reads in part. “Absences from all or part of the required academic program should be managed consistent with the attendance policies of the district. For accountability and other statewide reporting purposes, 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 alternative location or activities for individual students while the tests are being administered.”

Jonathan Burman, a spokesman for the Education Department, encouraged parents to have their children participate in the assessments because of the purpose they can serve.

“State assessments offer an opportunity for educators and parents to gauge the progress a child is making toward the (Common Core) standards,” he 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.”

Area superintendents were equally encouraging of student participation in the assessments. According to Tim Mains, superintendent of Jamestown Public Schools, the assessments are equally beneficial for students and their schools as a whole.

“(Schools) are in the process of rolling out a brand new curriculum, and we know that how well that goes is going to be reflected in the results of this test – which is aligned to what we’re trying to teach,” he said. “For us, we would like to have a data point for every single child that we have enrolled at JPS. The data is most reliable if I have information on every single child.”

Mains said the state has made the assessments low-stakes in an effort to help schools understand how well they are implementing the curriculum and develop their instructional programs moving into the next school year.

“(The assessments) are low-stakes, and do not have an impact on a child’s placement or grade,” Mains said. “The fact that (the state) did that means, in some ways, that some people can make the excuse that they don’t have to take them. Therefore, it troubles me that the assessments are getting a bad name as though they don’t have a place in schools.”

Lictus agreed, saying assessments are an essential part of life – from education to the working world – and having parents opt their children out of the assessments is sending the wrong message.

“Our world is full of assessments,” Lictus said. “These assessments are more of a reflection of how well the schools are delivering the instruction. They were never meant to be an indicator of student achievement as much as how well the students are progressing in our curriculum.”

“I think we have to be really careful of what message we’re sending over an individual political belief,” he added. “The parents in my districts have been supportive, and the kids have given it their best shot. And when the results come in, we’ll analyze those as we move on in the development of our instructional program.”

The grades 3-8 ELA assessments were administered through from Tuesday through Thursday, while the grades 3-8 mathematics assessments will be administered from April 30-May 2.