Testing pushback at Onteora

school SLIDEChanges to state tests due to the new Common Core standards have created protests among parents whose children in grades-three-through-eight are affected. What parents have described as a stressful over-testing environment, brought about by State Government only concerned with test scores and deals made with for-profit test companies, Onteora District Board of Education offered a little pushback. At Tuesday’s, April 7, Board of Education meeting, Trustees approved a policy that gives information on how parents can opt their child out of the tests.

Policy number 7260 titled, Testing: State Assessments Grades three-through-eight, states that the Board, “opposes over-testing.” However, since the board must comply with laws and regulations, the tests will take place. The policy reads, “Neither the Education Law nor the Commissioner’s regulations provide a mechanism for parents to opt their child out of required state assessments in grades three-through-eight; similarly, neither the education law nor the commissioner’s regulations expressly prohibit parents and students from refusing these assessments.” But there is a way. Required through the Federal No Child Left Behind Act, students are given the choice to opt out by filling in a bubble presented on the test. Students who do opt out of a test will be provided with a quiet place to read.

At the same time, the board created a task force on testing reduction, consisting of parents and school officials who drafted the policy.


State testing begins Tuesday, April 14 in English Language Arts, lasting for three days and the following week in Math for three days. In May, students in grades four-through-eight are tested in science.

Bennett PTA Vice President Heather Roberts said the PTA’s at Bennett Intermediate school, Woodstock and Phoenicia Primary schools have been informing parents on when the tests take place, what they mean and opt out options. She said that, with time is taken away from classroom instruction and spent on how to take the test and the tests themselves lasting 90 minutes daily,  “that is nine hours of testing in two weeks.”

So how has the information to opt out impacted the school? According to Bennett Principal Gabe Buono, out of 320 students approximately one-third will be opting out, “but that number changes daily,” he said. On the Bennett PTA Facebook page, parents are informed to send in refusal letters, informing the teacher that their child will be opting out of the test. With all the protests going on throughout New York State, Buono is unsure how it will affect the district in the long run, however he speculated that it will be identified negatively through the school report card and could impact State funding. “I’m charged with bringing in 95 percent attendance for the tests.” Buono said. “We will be identified as a district, not just Bennett.”

Trustee Ann McGillicuddy stood against the testing. “I know that teachers and staff, principals and administrators are fearful to speak out against the State tests and the APPR (teachers evaluations tied to the tests), but at this time after lobbying for seven years, I cannot honestly stand by and accept the continued unfunded mandates and bad decisions and other factors that are contributing and will further contribute to the decline of education,” she said.


High ratings for Bennett

Based mostly upon concerns from parents stemming from the reconfiguration of Bennett Intermediate School, a survey was conducted in that school on social norms, interactions, values and organizational structures. Out of 336 students, 308 participated in the survey; out of 87 employees, 61 participated in the survey; and out of 303 parents, 103 participated.

Richard Cardillo of The National School Climate Center, the firm that conducted the survey, presented the findings. “I’m not here to sugar coat or complete a narrative of anybody,” he said. “To look at the data that came in, there was a very loud and glaring pride that comes out that people feel safe in Onteora, people feel belonged to, people feel listened to, people feel like there is a concern across the board with parents, with students, and with staff.” He compared the high scores to other school districts surveyed through the Center and said, “The trend was broken at Bennett, where across the board the highest ratings were social, emotional, security, with everyone involved.” On a scale of one-to-five with five as the highest, students, staff and parents, scored in mid-level threes-to-high fours on topics such as, rules, safety, leadership and school connectedness.

School Board President Tony Fletcher looked at it a different way. “Did I hear correctly that the social emotional scored very high at the school?”

Cardillo answered, “Extremely high, I’m looking at this now, sense of social emotional security, 3.56 was the high rate for students, the highest you can go is five.”

Fletcher said, “The way I’m seeing it on the same page it’s the lowest score across all three groups.”

Cardillo agreed, but he said that of approximately 4000 other reports from schools tested, Bennett scored much higher.

Onteora administrators will address those concerns in the near future.


Budget decrease at .42 percent; tax increase less than 1 percent

Assistant Superintendent for Business and acting Superintendent Victoria McLaren presented the 2015/16 recommended budget with changes made due to an increase in State aid and decrease in capital projects. The recommended budget of $51,656,975 will represent a decrease in spending of $219,150 or .42 percent compared to the 2014/15 budget of $51,876,125.

The recommended tax levy of $40,607,444 represents an increase of $348,483 or .87 percent. The previous projection of a 1.9 percent levy increase was reduced because of restoration to the Gap Elimination Adjustment of $473,579 and foundation aid of $24,581. The board will vote to adopt the budget on Wednesday, April 22, and a budget hearing is marked for Tuesday, May 5. Voters will give it a thumbs up or down on Tuesday, May 19.

The largest factors driving the budget include employee benefits — health care and retirement will increase by $158,314, bringing it to $15.1 million, and instruction will have an increase of nearly $500,000 bringing it to $26.7 million. There is a new (unfunded) state mandate on how English as Second Language students are taught, requiring the district to hire two ESL teachers and continue with a part time ESL instructor through BOCES. The new regulations call for integrated classroom teaching combined with separate instruction, smaller grouping of students by grade level and at least two years of support.


In other school news

Legendary jazz drummer Jack DeJohnette donated musical instruments and parts totaling in an estimated value of $4,970 to Onteora music program. Trustee Rob Kurnit said, “I wanted the public to be aware that there’s a very nice donation by the world famous drummer who lives in our area, Jack DeJohnette and I wanted that to be in public record that he has made a very nice donation to Onteora band.”