Test of wills

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

Parents of third through eighth grade students in Saugerties have been warned by state education officials that the new, tougher standardized testing their kids began undergoing this week is going to result in low test scores and that parents should expect poor results from their children. “What kind of message is that sending to our kids?” wondered a group of concerned teachers and parents at a meeting of Saugerties PACE (Parents Actively Committed to Education) at the Frank D. Greco Senior Center on Market St. Monday night.

“The new benchmark is failure,” said one teacher. “It’s not right.” He places the blame not on the local school district but on the Legislature in Albany, saying “it has allowed this inappropriate system to flourish.”

The newly mandated high-stakes tests in math and English align with the Common Core standards and are intended to raise the academic levels in schools nationwide. But, these parents and educators ask, at what cost to their children? At the PACE meeting, one parent after another said they were troubled by the focus on preparation for the tests, saying that it seems “all-consuming” and “relentless,” and puts undue stress on their kids. One teacher after the next said they don’t believe that the tests accurately measure the students’ knowledge, or take into account individual learning styles.

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Elise Hunt is a teacher in Kingston who works with seventh and eighth grade ESL students. “The big hypocrisy of this for us,” she said, “is that we’re constantly being trained to teach to the individual needs of a student. We spend all our time and energy doing that, and then at the end of the year, they all sit down to the same exact test.”

And then there’s the cost of testing for already financially-strapped school districts: the money being put into the tests can be put to better use elsewhere, said parents.

Much of the conversation at the PACE forum centered around whether students can simply opt out of taking the tests entirely, and if they do, what effect that will have on their futures and their teachers’ evaluations. According to many parents and teachers present, there’s a lot of conflicting information and misinformation swirling about regarding the issue.

Students have been told, they say, that it’s illegal to opt out. They’ve been told that if they don’t take the test it will influence their future placement in honors level studies and even determine college admissions. Wrong, they say — on all counts. One person who spoke at the meeting said they were told that teachers’ evaluations are no longer going to be tied to standardized testing, so it should not be an issue for an individual teacher if they have a student who opts out of taking the tests (some parents told of their kids being chastised by teachers who didn’t want the child’s poor performance on the tests to reflect upon them).

The parents are worried about the stress placed on their children in taking the tests, but are perhaps even more concerned about the stress that would be placed on them should they elect to opt out; an act of civil disobedience that, as was pointed out by more than one person, is difficult enough for an adult to do but nearly impossible for a child to take upon themselves.

Beth Humphrey is the parent of two children, a sixth grader at Mt. Marion Elementary School and a 10th grader at the high school, and she’s employed as a museum educator who works with several of the school districts in the area. She says the goal of the PACE group is to hold public conversations free of the agendas and constraints that the Board of Education and PTA meetings have to operate within.

“The PTA is a national organization with a lot of members and they have very specific guidelines for how they can advocate for kids,” Humphrey said. “We also really wanted to be specific to what Saugerties is concerned about. We’re happy to have the Board of Education listen, and if listening to us influences them, great. But we’re trying to keep the conversation as broad as possible. We don’t intend to endorse candidates [for the School Board].”

The topic for the evening was determined by a recent PACE meeting, she said, where they generated a list of concerns, and the new tests were the number one priority. Future meetings will focus on whatever parents are actively concerned about at that time. “It may be nutrition in the schools another time,” said Humphrey. “We’re driven by what the parents are concerned about, and right now it’s the testing.”

Attendance at the monthly forums has generally numbered between 25–50 people, Humphrey said. She pointed out the diversity of the group, noting that among the more than 30 attendees present on this night were the Town Supervisor Kelly Myers and Board of Education members Bob Thomann, George Heidcamp, Thomas Ham and Bob Davies. An eloquent young student attended with her parents and spoke out about the testing from the child’s perspective, and several of the people in attendance had children who were grown and long out of the school district system, but who came to lend their support to the others.

“We all have concerns about the quality of education and being able to talk about it,” Humphrey said. To that end, she has set up a Facebook page for the group (Saugerties PACE) on which anyone can re-post material put out on the subject in order that the conversation remain active and so that parents and teachers have a place to go to share and acquire information in between PACE meetings.

Organizers also supplied contact information and form letters for parents who wish to write letters of protest about the testing to members of the New York State Board of Regents (regents.nysed.gov/members/), State Sen. Cecilia Tkaczyk (nysenate.gov), New York State Assemblyman Pete Lopez (assembly.state.ny.us) and Gov. Andrew Cuomo (governor.ny.gov/contact/).

A march on Albany is also in the works for Saturday, June 8.

A date for the next meeting of PACE has not yet been set. The next meeting of the Board of Education will be Wednesday, April 24, at which time they’ll hear from a Government Relations committee they’ve set up in order to discuss the ways in which the local community can make their opinions heard in Albany with regard to future testing.

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