One week after 43 percent of eligible students in the Kingston City School District were opted out of standardized tests in English Language Arts (ELA), school officials said the percentage had crept up to 44 percent for last week’s math.
Last week, school officials confirmed that of the 2,813 students in grades three through eight who were eligible to take the standardized ELA tests, 1,212 had opted out. Superintendent Paul Padalino confirmed that the district had seen slightly more students opt out prior to the start of the math exams, a three-day assessment period which began on Wednesday, April 22.
The overall numbers in Kingston are up about 10 percent from last year, when 33 percent of eligible students opted out of standardized testing. District Superintendent Paul Padalino said the increase was not unexpected.
“I think we saw this coming,” he said. “There’s been a lot of talk around opting out, and we’ve seen it across the state.”
The growing numbers of students opting out within the district have mirrored an uptick in refusals in other local districts and across the state. Developed in 2010 by the U.S. Department of Education, New York was one of the first states in the union to jump on the Common Core bandwagon back in 2011. The new standards, allegedly designed to give kids a more rigorous preparation for college, prompted the Board of Regents to change associated high-stakes testing — which already had been around for nearly a decade thanks to the federal No Child Left Behind law — to reflect Common Core standards.
Kingston Action for Education (KAFE) is an advocacy group founded by parents Jolyn Safron, Maria Maritsas and Tory Lowe. The group was on hand last November when the Ulster County Legislature voted 23-0 on a resolution supporting the discontinuation of Common Core implementation until the standards can be evaluated and improved at the state level.
Safron — who stressed that she was speaking as a parent rather than a representative of KAFE — said that the continued growth of the grassroots opt-out movement has been encouraging.
“They’re parents, they’re not unions, and they’re not special interest groups as charges have been made at various times,” she said. “No one’s getting paid to do the work. We’re doing it because we love our kids and we care about the education of our kids. And it’s not even just our kids, but all of the kids in New York State. To see the large numbers of parents empowered to do what they believe is the right thing for their children by refusing the state tests is very rewarding. It actually gives me energy to continue this battle. Unfortunately we aren’t done.”
State Assemblyman Kevin Cahill agreed.
“I think it validates the point that’s been made by educators and experts, that standardized testing is not something that people are welcoming in terms of determining the quality of education,” Cahill said this week. “And that we’re seeing what amounts to a level of civil disobedience proves that there was a failure on the legislative and executive side this year drafting the budget proposal.”
Some legislators said they’d reluctantly voted in favor of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s budget earlier this month because, even though it meant approving an amended version of the governor’s controversial education reforms, it also included significant state aid increases. Among the original proposed reforms is a teacher evaluation system based half on student test scores, an increase in the length of time before a teacher is eligible for tenure, and the state takeover of failing schools and districts.
Some of those reforms passed after midnight on April 1, but they were softened somewhat through negotiations. For instance, a provision requiring student performance on standardized testing to account for 50 percent of a teacher’s annual evaluation was removed; the state already has a similar requirement with the figure at 25 percent, with individual school districts having the leeway to increase that percentage. Under the new rules, testing will be combined with classroom observation of a teacher by a school administrator and an independent evaluator, with the state education commissioner determining how much weight each piece of the puzzle will have in the final analysis. Top performing teachers would be eligible for a $20,000 annual bonus. Teachers being marked as ineffective based on the new evaluation system for two straight years would be subject to a termination hearing within the district. Three straight years of low ratings would automatically result in termination.
Cahill voted against the amended plan, and he said the continued growth of the opt-out movement should serve as a wake-up call.
“It also signals to the Board of Regents, and to the chancellor, and to the governor, and to my colleagues who voted differently than I did on this proposal that we’d better go back to the drawing board,” he said. “It’s not up to the parents to fix the system of education, it’s up to the parents to have a system of education that they have faith in. it’s up to us to create that system. And we’re not doing that right now.”
According to the New York State Education Department, around 47,000 students refused the ELA tests in 2014, with the number of students refusing math tests at roughly 67,000. Around 1.1 million students in the state were eligible to take the tests. State Ed hasn’t released the opt-out figures for 2015 yet, anticipating a complete tally sometime over the summer. But United to Counter the Core, an activist group which says it tallies figures from actual headcounts from administrators, school board members, teachers unions, educators, PTA members, news reports, and occasionally parent volunteers from within the classroom, said the numbers have jumped considerably higher.
In a statement released on Monday, April 27, United to Counter the Core said that with 76 percent of school districts reporting, around 193,000 students had refused ELA tests. The group also claimed that with 45 percent of school districts reporting, 151,000 students had opted out of math tests last week.
Whether State Ed and United to Counter the Core ultimately agree on the final figures, it does appear that the number of students opting out is rising, a trend reflected in Kingston schools. According to federal law, states are required to give assessments to students each year, with a further mandate that 95 percent of eligible students in each of a district’s schools must participate or the district can face financial repercussions.
Cahill (D-District 103) said it was unlikely financial sanctions would be levied.
“The chancellor [of the Board of Regents, Merryl H. Tisch], who I respect a great deal, has already said that this movement to opt out is risking our federal funding,” Cahill said last week. “The point that has to be made there is that the federal government has never, ever withheld federal education dollars over an issue like this. Ever. And there’s no reason to believe they will now.”
Dorie Nolt, the press secretary for the U.S. Department of Education, appeared to agree, at least tentatively, in a statement released in mid-April.
“The Department has not had to withhold money — yet — over the requirement because states have either complied or have appropriately sanctioned schools or districts that assessed less than 95 percent of students.”
Padalino backs participation
How those sanctions play out in New York remains to be seen. But Padalino said he hoped that as long as standardized tests are given, he hoped to see more students participating in them.
“I’ve been on record as saying that I thought the assessments are a valuable tool for the school district to see how we’re doing, and really use them to evaluate how we’re educating students, Padalino said. “I know people are out there talking about how they’re a tool for other things, but for us to be able to look at how our students are doing and how we’re doing delivering the curriculum, it’s a valuable tool. And with 40 percent or higher not taking the test it makes it more difficult for us.”
Padalino added that the district would have to rely less on the results of the tests to evaluate its effectiveness instead.