As school officials in the Saugerties Central School District consider their plans for accommodating students whose parents opt them out of standardized tests this spring, they’re also facing changes in the tests themselves.
Last month, State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said students will be given as much time as they need to complete state assessments — one of several planned changes for testing across the state. Students taking the untimed tests will be allowed to continue beyond the previous time limits, provided they’re “working productively,” Elia said. The state will provide guidelines to districts about the changes, including how best to determine what “productive work” actually means.
Students in grades three through eight take federally mandated tests in English Language Arts (ELA) and math each April over a total of six days. Previously, tests were administered over periods of 60 to 90 minutes, depending upon the subject and grade level, but after hearing concerns from parents and teachers that some students were stressed out about finishing on time, the change was made.
But during February 9’s Saugerties school board meeting, some trustees said they couldn’t understand the removal of a fixed test time, both in what it does to the validity of the exams and how it will work practically in local schools.
“I can’t wrap my head around this untimed test,” said board vice president James Mooney. “In order for a test to be valid it has to measure something, and it has to measure it in a specified period of time. I’m not understanding the length of the test. I’m not understanding the one or two questions they took off the test to make it shorter, and now they’re giving you more time. What do we do with kids now who are special needs and get extended time, or time-and-a-half? What do we do with kids who have anxiety and have to leave the room? It makes no sense to me. And I think we need to come up with some kind of plan because of all these uncertainties so that we don’t harm our children.”
Trustee Mike Maclary agreed. “I know in one guidance letter from State Ed, it says that the new testing will be more effective and more measurable,” he said. “I don’t really agree with that. You could practice all you want, say, with a team, and you don’t know until it’s all over how you did. So I think to have something in place would help the district and parents as we navigate this new system.”
The change to untimed tests is facing criticism elsewhere too.
“More time for students to be frustrated on flawed state tests isn’t the answer,” said New York State United Teachers’ spokesman Carl Korn in a statement. Korn added that the exams and learning standards should be re-evaluated instead.
The state introduced new tests in 2013 to align with the rigorous Common Core standards, and while schools struggled to adapt, an increasing number of parents were opting their children out of the tests altogether. In 2015, the total portion of Saugerties students opting out of the exams was 23 percent for ELA and 30 percent for math. Those numbers were lower than in some other local districts, including Onteora (64 percent ELA, 69 percent math), New Paltz (62 percent ELA, 69 percent math) and Kingston (43 percent ELA, 44 percent math). The growing number of students opting out across the state led governor Andrew Cuomo to form a task force to address the concerns, with the committee recommending overhauling the learning standards and assessments.
More or fewer opt-outs?
It’s unclear how the move to untimed tests will impact those choosing to forbid their children taking the test. During February 9’s meeting, superintendent Seth Turner said it was too soon to know what those numbers will look like in April. But he did ask that parents and anyone else come forward with their concerns.
“We want to have as much information as possible available to us so that when we sit at our table for administrative council, we know what the actual concerns are,” Turner said. “It’s nebulous at this point. We do want those people, if they have any concerns, whatever they might be, share them with us so that we have enough time to adequately prepare and do the best that we can in this type of circumstance.”
Mooney said that during a recent community and conversation meeting, there were questions as to what the district planned to do with students who refused the assessments.
“Parents want to be assured that their kids won’t be rewarded or punished for the parents’ decision,” Mooney said. “So I would like to get something in writing. I don’t know if this has to be deferred to a policy or not. The test is mandated, the test will be given. But for the parents who opt their kids out, we need to make sure that those kids aren’t sitting there at an empty space.”
Two years ago, the district faced criticism for a “sit and stare” option where students who were opted-out were reportedly instructed to sit silently while other students took the tests. Last year, the district let classroom teachers come up with supplemental materials so students not taking the test would still be learning something. Turner said that while the district was still considering how to proceed this year, it’s likely something similar to last year’s approach will happen. Turner again stressed that school officials were open to input.
“There’s no way for us to police every classroom across the district for what’s going on, nor to know what the people and parents would like to have in place,” he said. “I want to encourage them, though, to make sure, if they’re having any concerns, go to their child’s teacher, talk to their principal.”