Long Island Opt-Out: why parents are refusing the high-stakes tests

Photo from http://herricksta.ny.aft.org

By Abby Del Vecchio and Kayla Shults

Teachers have always used assessments to drive instruction.  Tests help teachers determine comprehension of the material, monitor strengths and weaknesses and identify whether or not topics need to be retaught, modified or enriched.  Testing is a way to monitor their teaching, as well as their students’ knowledge.

During the 2012-2013 school year, in response to the Common Core Learning Standards, a new type of high stakes testing was implemented across the country, to all third through eighth grade students.  A high-stakes test is any particular exam that is a single, defined assessment, has a clear line drawn between passing and failing, and has something at stake, with direct consequences for passing or failing.

In reality, these tests are more likely to affect teachers than students.

The test is graded on a basis that is almost too simple and leaves more questions than answers. Math and English Language Arts are the only two subjects these students are tested on, and they are graded on a scale of one to four, with the passing score of three or four, being determined after all exams have been scored.

There are 180 topics to be taught each year, which means a new topic to learn each school day. Joseph Rella, PhD, superintendent of the Comsewogue School District in Port Jefferson Station, NY, said this leaves little to no time for learning about any other subjects, such as social studies and science, and does not allot time for snow days and assemblies.

Jeanette Deutermann, founder of the Long Island Opt-Out Movement and mother of two from Bellmore, NY, said her son experienced stomach aches while in the fourth grade because of the pressure he felt to do well on these high stakes tests.

“I had the doctor check him out, and I asked if we should be running tests. They ran a blood test to try to find out what was going on, if there was something physically wrong,” she said. “And what they concluded was that it was stress, anxiety. This was a couple months before the test. The stomach aches stopped the day I told my son he wouldn’t be taking these tests.”

Elementary and middle school students are being taught for a test, leaving them stressed and confused. In some cases, students were so set on doing well on these exams that it caused actual physical illnesses.

In response to these high stakes tests that were stressing out children, both in and outside of the classroom, making them hate going to school, Deutermann discovered there was a way to prevent students from having to take these tests, which is how the Opt-Out movement got started on Long Island.  Opting out simply means the student will not sit for these exams.

What began in upstate New York quickly became popular across the state. According to the New York State Allies for Public Education, it is very simple for parents to opt their children out, or refuse the high stakes tests.

All parents have to do is download the refusal letter, which is available in numerous languages. This letter thanks the school district’s administrators for their dedication to the schools, but states that the child will not participate in the testing,  and should be graded as though they refused to take the tests. The letter also asks that an alternative activity be in place for children who are not being tested.

A main concern of the parents and teachers is that teacher evaluations are based on the students’ performance on these high stakes tests.

And although parents do have concerns, there are still students across Long Island who are taking these tests. Our inquiries for comments from these parents in school districts across Long Island have gone unanswered.

Maria Brown, a mother of three and a third grade teacher at South Country Elementary School in the Bay Shore School District, said 17 students, in any combination, must take the tests in math and ELA in order for the teachers to be evaluated.

For years, teachers were evaluated based on observations of their teaching style, lesson plans and effectiveness in the classroom. As of right now, 40 percent of a teacher’s evaluation comes from these tests –  20 percent for state tests, and 20 percent for local tests (which districts can choose not to do).  The other 60 percent is based on observations done by the principal or supervisor.  As part of the new state budget, which passed April 1, 2015, Gov. Cuomo has pushed for the high stakes tests to have an even greater impact on teacher evaluations.

Many argue that putting students through all of this stress and anxiety for an exam that is used to evaluate teachers, not the students taking them, is unfair.  Some supporters of the Opt-Out Movement say they believe that students are being used as pawns in the governor’s war on teachers.

The Comsewogue School District has been at the forefront of the Opt-Out Movement since it began in 2013. This year in Comsewogue alone, 82% of third through eighth grade students did not take the reading tests and nearly 85% did not take the math exams.

Beth Dimino, an eighth grade science teacher at the John F. Kennedy Middle School and President of the Port Jefferson Station Teachers Association equated these tests to something more extreme than stress-inducing.

Child Abuse.

“I will never be put in the position where I cannot help a child,” said Dimino. “As a New York state teacher I am required by state law to be a mandated reporter for child abuse. This, in my opinion, is child abuse. I believe that I contributed to that last year and in the years past when I did administer these tests.”

Dimino says she feels so strongly about the Opt-Out Movement that she is willing to risk losing her job.

“I refused to administer the tests with the full understanding that the district [Comsewogue] can choose not to reassign me,” Dimino said. “This district chose to reassign me, but the district could have chosen to write me up for insubordination and filed charges against me.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, an avid supporter of the Common Core curriculum and the high-stakes testing that go along with it, has said that the tests do nothing for the students taking the tests.

“The grades are meaningless to the students,” Cuomo told parents.  “They can opt out if they want to, but on the other hand if the child takes the test, it’s practice and the score doesn’t count.”

By saying this, it has only angered parents more.

“What sparked a lot of this movement this year and a lot of the explosion of the Opt-Out Movement was Cuomo declaring war on the teachers,” said Deutermann. “That’s the part that he he just has never understood. You cannot hurt teachers without hurting kids. You can’t do it to one without doing another.”

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