While the Saugerties Central School District appears to be leaning toward allowing teachers to determine how students who opt out of state-mandated standardized tests spend their exam time, a directive designed to give parents more clarity could change that.
The resolution, which board president Robert Thomann presented as the board seeks clarity on a matter that’s led to tension in the past, was approved by a narrow 5-4 margin.
The proposal, which Superintendent Seth Turner said arrived literally at the last minute” of a pre-board meeting, was discussed during at the trustees’ March 8 meeting at Cahill Elementary.
“Be it resolved that the Saugerties Central School District encourages communication among district staff, parents and students in regard to standardized testing mandated by the New York State Department of Education,” read the proposal. “The Saugerties Central School District Board of Education tasks the superintendent with informing parents of exam implementation procedures for all students whether they are participating or their parents are asserting a right for them to opt-out of taking the exams. In order to be in compliance with New York State Education law the Saugerties Central School District will administer the exams in grades 3-8 as mandated by the New York State Department of Education. The superintendent will establish procedures for students who opt out of these state tests.”
Voting in favor of the resolution were Thomann, board vice-president James Mooney, and trustees Krista Barringer, Raymond Maclary and Damion Ferraro; voting against were trustees George Heidcamp, Florence Hyatt, Charles Schirmer and Angie Minew.
Last month, Turner said that while the district was still considering how to handle students who opt out of the exams, the district was likely to leave the decision in the hands of classroom teachers rather than come up with a district-wide policy. Two years ago, the district faced criticism for a “sit and stare” option where students whose parents opted them out of standardized tests were reportedly instructed to sit silently while other students took the exams. Last year, the district let classroom teachers come up with supplemental materials so students whose parents refused the assessments would still be in a learning environment.
While the district hadn’t officially committed to a similar approach, Turner strongly opposed the proposal, which would require a more uniform district-wide response to opt-outs.
“I will convene conferences with teachers, I will pull them out of the classrooms and get substitutes so that the committee can review this resolution to ensure that we are in compliance,” Turner said. “I will not be doing the grunt work on this. I will get the teachers, the principals, and the faculty together on the school’s time to review your resolution and the documents from State Ed to generate information to share with the parents.”
Opponents of the proposal said that they didn’t want to be seen as encouraging parents to opt their children out of the mandated tests, and some questioned the legality of opting out in the first place.
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. The state introduced new tests in 2013 to align with the new 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 opted 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 Gov. Andrew Cuomo to form a task force to address the concerns, with the committee recommending overhauling the learning standards and assessments.
During the public comment period prior to the board discussion, Jennifer Mangione said she was in favor of the resolution, as she felt the district didn’t do enough to let parents of students opting out what would happen in the classroom while tests were being administered.
“Last year, parents and students were told a couple of days before the state tests were to begin that the students who were opting out of the tests would be given rigorous material in place of the state tests,” Mangione said, adding that she would prefer opted-out students being given the option to read. “As a parent who is in support of the opt-out movement, I would like to see students be able to read a book instead of doing work that is not graded or utilized in any other way. Reading is an excellent alternative, and the sooner the parents and students know what will happen to the students who are choosing to opt out, the better.”
During the meeting, Thomann said he felt the school board had to do something because the State Education Department had failed in its promise to offer guidance.
“State Ed does not yet have its act together,” Thomann said. “I met on Feb. 9 with Commissioner [MaryEllen] Elia with a group of administrators, and we were promised a toolkit would come out as a guide to teachers about how to prepare for the upcoming exams that we’re heading into next month. It was supposed to be rolled out within two weeks and it’s still not out. There are not a lot of guidance documents.”
Thomann rejected the idea that seeking clarity from district officials would encourage parents to opt-out their kids, saying that he felt the resolution was respectful to all views on the matter.
“Last year, there seemed to be a lot of contentiousness between members of the public, parents, and the board of education,” Thomann said. “I wanted to get out in front of that to have a resolution to show that we respect all sides of it.”
Thomann added that he believed the resolution would make things easier on school officials, not worse.
“We wanted to take some of the pressure off the district itself; the administrators are on the front line,” Thomann said, adding that he was surprised it was such a contentious topic. “I think it’s very unfortunate. I think it was interpreted that we were attacking the administration, where it was just the opposite. The resolution I thought was designed to get out in front and protect the administration.”