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Central Valley and state assessments

A message from Superintendent Rich Hughes and the Board of Education

It’s that time of year.  The snow is almost gone, the days are getting longer, and the birds are singing. It’s also the time of year for New York State assessments for ELA and Math in grades 3-8. And with the annual assessments comes an onslaught of arguments for and against those assessments.  This has been exacerbated recently with the passage of the state budget that includes possible greater individual accountability for teachers, principals, and schools. With all the arguments against testing that are in the news and being made by parents and teachers across our state, why don’t school districts simply refuse to give the tests?

One critical reason is every Board of Education member, superintendent and all educators take an oath, either as part of the office or certification, to uphold all laws and regulations at both the federal and state level. The federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), as a reauthorization of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, requires that State tests be administered in English language arts and mathematics in Grades 3-8, and in science at least once during Grades 3–5 and 6–9. In accordance with the federal requirements and Sections 100.3 and 100.4 of the Commissioner’s regulations, the NYS Education Department and Board of Regents require that all students in public and charter schools in Grades 3–8 must take all state assessments administered for their grade level. This even includes students who were retained in these grades.  With the exception of certain areas in which parental consent is required, such as Committee on Special Education (CSE) evaluations for students with disabilities, certain federally-funded surveys, and certain analyses specified under the federal Protection of Pupil Rights, there is no provision in state statute or regulation allowing parents to opt their children out of State tests. I understand this flies in the face of numerous advocate groups but taking a few words out of the statutes or assessment directions to skew the meaning of the regulations, doesn’t change the fact that the assessments are required to be given to all children in the corresponding grade levels.

There are numerous reasons why there is now an opt-out movement when annual assessments existed well before NCLB even existed. It ranges from the politics of attaching the performance of students on tests to teacher/principal ratings, to the fear of big corporations such as Pearson and charter schools taking over education and using student data to being worried about the psychological effect on the students amongst others. While I can certainly appreciate all those arguments, the fact remains that school districts are required to give the assessments and have a minimum of 95% of students in each grade level and sub-category take the assessment to even be considered a school in good standing regardless of performance.  This was put into NCLB to stop schools from deciding which students take the test and which ones don’t so the results would not be skewed. As evidenced by the recent cheating scandal verdicts in Atlanta, there was good reason to put that statute into place as the growth of all students matter.

Instead of focusing on one yearly test, we should be having a conversation about what good assessment looks like. That comes down to a discussion about formative and summative assessment and the intent behind any assessment. Summative assessments such as the NYS exams, local mid-terms, finals, chapter tests or even quizzes are summative if the intent is to purely measure where students stand against a set standard of performance.  This could be as simple as using a 100 point grading scale. Summative assessment happens in classrooms on a much more regular basis than it should because data from summative assessments is meant to rank students, help the teacher/school align curriculum or provide grades.  Each of these have its place and are needed but should not be anywhere near the majority of assessments given as ongoing learning is the key. Formative assessment is the opposite as the intent is to provide students and teachers with quick feedback to adjust learning in real-time so areas that are not understood can be retaught and expanded upon.  Asking a class of students if they understand something and having them nod back or say yes is not formative assessment. There is no way to tell if students truly understood the lesson or are just saying they do to move on and not be singled out amongst their peers.  The very best teachers consistently use various formative assessment techniques to make sure their students are learning the skills and knowledge they need. The reason I mention the two types of assessment is to show that one cannot exist without the other and that most classrooms too often utilize summative assessment yet the fight is over a once a year test from the state.

When there are disagreements, there are sure to be exaggerations on either side. Schools are caught in the middle of this fight. Some school districts have decided to provide alternate accommodations for students that are refusing to take the test partly out of the common used term “sit and stare.” Sadly this phrase is being used to make a testing practice, which many educators use for tests created in their own classrooms, seem punitive and evil on yearly assessments.  The truth is far from how the wording makes it sound. Ultimately, parents have a choice to send their children to school during the scheduled testing and make-up times the same as if they believe the weather is too bad. In order to uphold the law and regulations, all students in attendance will have to sit for the assessments.  That does not mean they will be forced to take the test as no reasonable educator can or should force a child to take the test against the wishes of a parents no matter the issues across the political spectrum. For those students that are willing to take the test, there has to be an environment conducive to testing just as would be expected in the daily classroom. Thirty minutes after the tests begin, exams will be collected from any students that have not started the exam. After the tests are collected, the students will be able to read quietly. This is a compromise when schools are well within the regulations to not allow students to have an alternate activity during the entire time of testing. During Regents exams at the high school level, nothing at all is allowed into the testing room even if students finish early.

As stated previously, a summative assessment such as the NYS tests allows schools to measure student progress in comparison to other students regardless of zip code. As such, high expectations should not be bound by a zip code. While both sides argue, we at Central Valley, want to maintain an environment free of politics and disruptions of the educational environment. I sincerely hope we are not sending a message to our children that it’s okay to opt out of things they don’t want to do. I have seen first-hand examples of students forging opt out notes and stating that they wanted to opt out of classes such as English or physical education. This is all a fallout from the ongoing political battles.

I don’t agree with the current attempts to make testing a way to hold teachers and schools accountable. My doctoral dissertation was on teacher evaluations and in conclusions with corresponding recommendations opposite of the path taken by Governor Cuomo and similar so-called student advocates. Even though I disagree with his education reforms, refusing to take a test only will end up playing into his hands. What we should be doing is focusing on the things that truly matter, educating our children instead of putting them in the middle of a political fight. Time is a precious commodity and cannot and should not be wasted prepping for a summative test, whether it’s from the state or in the classroom.  We need to focus on learning and the basics such as reading, writing and arithmetic. Fighting against testing at the local level might make us feel better but it is not going to force change. The time we do have needs to be spent fighting testing at the federal level as that’s where change has to happen first.  Congress is finally working on a new reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Once that is changed to end yearly testing in all grades 3-8, then changes could occur at the state level.

I know we all aren’t going to agree on the testing procedures we have in place and that’s ok. Let’s get through this month and save our time and energy for the fight that can truly make a difference. If you are willing, I will be right there alongside you advocating in Washington and Albany for our Thunder.