Opting out of Common Core tests

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

This past week marked the beginning of Common Core state testing, the first set of standardized tests since the implementation of the curriculum at the beginning of this academic year. Students in grades three through eight took a three-part English Language Arts test. The test spanned 210 minutes over three days for third and fourth graders, and 270 minutes over three days for fifth through eighth graders. Special education students who were given extended time spent even longer testing during these three days. Like so many other aspects of Common Core, it was met with controversy.

While most students sat and took the test — over 95 percent, according to Assistant Superintendent Lawrence Mautone — a small percentage of parents in the Saugerties School District decided their children would not sit for it.


No bearing on grade

Saugerties mom Krista Scarselli, whose daughter is a fifth grader at Grant Morse Elementary School, was shocked to see how poorly her straight-A child did on the standardized tests last year. Though she had received the presidential golden seal academic excellence award, her test scores deemed her not proficient in math. When Scarselli questioned the seeming disconnect, she learned that it was not indicative of her classroom performance; it was likely that her daughter was simply a nervous tester. Scarselli says, “once I realized that it had no bearing on her grades, or advancement, and knew it was our right to chose to test or refuse to test,” she chose to have her child opt out of testing.


Luz Christina Ramirez-Mooney, whose son is in second grade at Riccardi Elementary and whose fourth grade daughter recently transferred from Riccardi to Kingston Catholic School, says she believes “the hours of mandated standardized testing are having a significant negative educational impact on children and contribute to the financial crisis facing schools across the Empire State.” She says the tests are not an accurate measurement of teaching ability or student progress, nor does she believe that they were intended to be. Instead, she believes that “the motivating factor” behind these tests is privatization. With that in mind, she chose to have her daughter not test.


Problems with opting out

Even before the state decided to delay full implementation of Common Core in February, local educators were unclear on many questions. “The State Education Department has not given direction on means for handling this, and refers to the language of the No Child Left Behind Act which states that all children are to be tested,” says Assistant Superintendent Mautone.

Some districts allow students who opt out to go to an alternate location and read quietly for the duration of the testing, others have students remain in the testing room with a book, and still others ask that children sit without a book, with the test in front of them, for the entirety of the testing time.

This final option, which is known as “sit and stare,” is the one that Saugerties parents have been presented with. When Scarselli originally approached Morse Principal Don Dieckmann, she says she was told the district had made a decision. The day before the testing began, she was informed that “sit and stare” would be enforced.

Ramirez-Mooney, who spoke with Riccardi Principal Sue Osterhoudt to let her know her daughter would be opting out, was told “our daughter would have to sit for the whole time and would not be permitted to go to the library or read a book.” Even if she took her daughter out of school during the testing, “the teachers informed me that my daughter would be made to ‘sit the time’ when she returned to school, essentially missing out on gym or art.” She says she has asked for the policy in writing several times, but has received only an invitation by Assistant Superintendent Mautone to discuss the issue further.

Superintendent Seth Turner says he is simply following the test administration manual by asking building principals to ensure that desks be cleared of all books and other materials. He says that the other districts in the area, such as Kingston and New Paltz, who have allowed students opting out to move to an alternate area with a book, had “no legal authority to do so.”


Anger over sit and stare

Scarselli, who opted to remove her child during the testing, says, “I’m not judging the superintendent at all, but I was shocked that this was being enforced on his watch. I think it’s awful to expect children to sit still with their heads staring straight ahead for hours.” She says she thinks the sit and stare policy was the brainchild of the common core creators, who wanted to “create a submissive parent who doesn’t want their child singled out.”

Ramirez-Mooney goes a step further, and refers to the practice of enforcing “sit and stare” as abusive. She says that by asking students to sit for hours with a test in front of them is akin to “punishing children who refuse to participate in a political cultural artifact, and prefer activities which foster learning and creativity.”

Alison Boek, whose children attend Riccardi Elementary, filed a petition signed by fellow parents with the Board of Education at its April meeting, asking the board to reconsider the practice. Before presenting the petition, she cited an article in the Washington Post that called the practice “spiteful,” as well as recently ousted NYSUT President Richard Ianuzzi who called it “educationally unsound.”

Administrators and parents will again face this issue when the math standardized tests are given at the end of the month.