This week, the Kingston City School District, like public school districts across New York, administered state assessment tests in math for students in grades 3-8. It’s the second straight week of the controversial standardized tests, which, like last year’s, saw a significant number of students opted out of them by their parents.
The numbers are framed differently depending upon which side of the argument one sits. For opponents of the testing, the focus is on the students whose parents refused the tests. But for school officials like Superintendent Paul Padalino, the participation rate is the key. And the participation rate, at least in last week’s English Language Arts (ELA) assessments has risen from last year.
“Last week with the ELA we had a 66 percent participation rate,” Padalino said on Tuesday, adding that it was too soon to know where the numbers would fall during this week’s math tests. Padalino acknowledged that in prior years, the district saw an increase of between 3-5 percent of students opting out of the second week of assessments.
Padalino added that the refusal numbers were higher in grades 6-8, with a percentage somewhere in the 40s opting out.
“The majority of our participation issues as far as test refusal is in our middle schools,” he said. “It’s really being driven at that higher level, and we’re not sure why that is.”
While the opt-out movement continues to make inroads across the state, a greater percentage of Kingston students sat for the ELA tests this year: The participation rate of 66 percent in this year’s ELA tests represents an increase of around nine percentage points over 2015; with around 2,800 students in the district between grades 3-8, that’s well over 200 more students taking the tests.
“I think a lot of the public sentiment may be giving the benefit of the doubt in favor of the testing, and the removal from the teacher evaluation piece may be part of it,” Padalino said.
Developed in 2010 by the U.S Department of Education, Common Core arrived in New York a year later when the Board of Regents became a pioneer in adopting the new, tougher standards intended to give kids better preparation for college. The Regents decided to change associated high-stakes testing which had been around for nearly a decade to reflect the new educational standards and the assessments would, the board decided, reflect upon a teacher’s APPR, or Annual Professional Performance Review. Governor Andrew Cuomo initially recommended the test results count for 50 percent of a teacher’s APPR; Kingston received a special dispensation for the test scores to count for only 20 percent. But a Common Core task force late last year recommended putting a four-year moratorium on assessments impacting a teacher’s APPR while other changes to Common Core were considered.
The Common Core Task Force’s report was released hours after President Barack Obama signed the federal Every Student Succeeds Act last December, which replaced No Child Left Behind. Cuomo’s panel recommended reductions in the number of days and the duration of standardized tests and allowing for flexibility with students with learning disabilities or for whom English is a second language.
Jolyn Safron, a co-founder of local education advocacy group Kingston Action for Education (KAFE), said that the state has yet to make any substantive changes to the tests or the impact they have on students.
“I have not seen marked improvements or steps to address those concerns yet,” said Safron, who stressed that she was not speaking on behalf of KAFE. “There’s talk to address the concerns, but talk is cheap. That’s why I am still saying test refusal has to continue, because until we see actual changes codified in law, things that we can put our hands on and say that problems have been fixed and won’t happen again. Only then are we going to be able to say, yes, the problems have been dealt with.”
School Board Trustee James Shaughnessy said that the state assessments are flawed and don’t benefit the students.
“The results of the state assessments are not available until the end of July,” he said. “The school year is over. I don’t believe the tests have any significant impact of student instruction. Student assessment is an ongoing process in the classroom. We should assess today to inform instruction tomorrow.”
But Padalino argued that the assessments help shape how the district provides education to the students as a whole.
“We don’t use the state assessments for promotion to the next grade, or advanced standing academically in any way,” he said. “We use it as data, combined with a lot of other data we collect from our students: Local assessments, teachers’ comments; we use many different things. We want the data. There’s no doubt. But we aren’t going to overstep parents’ concerns or blame students for parents exercising their right to do so.”
Safron agreed, at least with the district’s intent. She added that there may be something lost in the translation.
“I personally definitely feel that the Kingston district is attempting, at an administration level, to be supportive of the students,” she said. “I firmly believe that there is an intention at a high level to not apply that pressure, but somehow in translation and perception when it gets played out on the ground level there’s still the perception of intimidation being received by some parents and students.”
Like Safron, Shaughnessy said he believed the best chance of changing the assessments is for students to continue opting out of tests.
“The opt-out movement is the reason we are seeing changes at the Board of Regents, the State Education Department, and with Governor Cuomo’s attitude towards testing and teacher evaluation,” he said.