What to do with students who opt out of standardized tests?

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

Two recurring issues for the Saugerties School Board led to a sometimes contentious discussion at the September meeting: Information trustees receive from the superintendent prior to meetings, and the district’s controversial policy for students who opt out of standardized tests, which requires them to sit at their desks for the duration of the lengthy tests — criticized as “sit and stare.”


Trustee raises transparency concern

The discussion began when Trustee Damion Ferraro questioned why an article on standardized tests was included in trustee information packets but not mentioned on the meeting agenda.

The article was “Despite parental misgivings over testing, law leaves little discretion for districts” from the April 2014 issue of On Board, the official publication of the New York School Boards Association. It discussed issues surrounding students opting out of standardized tests, a growing issue since the increase of such testing with Common Core.


Ferraro said since joining the board this year, he had been surprised by items such as this article, which were presented at meetings but were not made public on the agenda. He said he wanted the public to be aware of this document.

Eventually, the agenda was amended to include the discussion, though Ferraro was not satisfied since it was not made public prior to the meeting.

Trustee Charles Schirmer said “it makes no sense” to put the article on the agenda since there wasn’t going to be a vote on it, and it was purely for informational purposes.

Superintendent Seth Turner called the inclusion of the article in the board’s information packets “far more innocent” than Ferraro was suggesting. He said he had been carrying it around since April, but hadn’t brought it to the board’s attention because other matters, such as the budget, had been more pressing.

Turner noted that he had been taken to task in the past two board meetings for not including enough information in the board packets, and now he was being told he had included too much information. “I just want to get it right,” he said.

Veteran trustees said Turner often includes articles and other supplemental information. Board Vice President Tom Ham called the article, and others Turner has distributed to trustees in the past, “information for information’s sake.” He said the implication that it was anything but informational was “insulting.”

Board President George Heidcamp agreed and said he took offense to the insinuation that the board was being underhanded. He said Turner included articles like this to keep board members informed.


The issue: Opting out

Though much of the discussion had to do with information distributed to trustees, the substance of the article in question is a hot-button issue for some Saugerties parents. Last year, a number of Saugerties students opted out of standardized tests. Those students had to remain seated at their desks with the tests in front of them for the length of the test. Although Saugerties was not alone in asking students to remain in the testing room, other local districts, such as Kingston and New Paltz, allowed students to go to another part of the building and read silently during the testing time.

Former President of the New York State teachers’ union Richard Ianuzzi has condemned the “sit and stare” policy, calling it “cruel to those students not taking the exam and a distraction and disservice to those who are attempting to complete it.”

The issue became controversial last spring. A petition to oppose “sit and stare” was circulated. Some parents felt the district was punishing students and parents for non-conformity. Administrators said they were following state guidelines, and other districts that allowed students to be excused from the tests were violating those guidelines.

The article addresses but doesn’t resolve the differing interpretations of guidelines for what to do with students who opt out during the tests. It states that “there is no legal mechanism for a student to be excused from a state assessment, with or without parental permission.” Legally, a school must administer the test to every student who is in school on the day the test is given or the designated make-up day. If they do not, the district risks losing aid money.

While the article calls testing a “legal mandate,” it does acknowledge that “when students attend but refuse to participate in testing, school officials have to decide where to put them and what instructions to give them.”

Trustee Florence Hyatt said although she was not advocating for parents to opt out, the article revived her concerns about the issue.

Turner stood by the decision to have all students who are present stay in the room with the test in front of them. He called it a “civil rights issue,” and explained that once students are allowed to be excused from the testing room, it becomes a slippery slope for those who don’t test well because they may be encouraged not to participate to boost scores for school districts.

Turner encouraged parents who are concerned with testing to speak up to politicians and to avoid using their children as a method of protest.