FULTON — Standardized tests for English Language Arts (ELA) start across the state on Tuesday, April 5, but some parents are planning to have their children decline the test or "opt out." Last year, more than 200,000 students in grades 3-8 across New York state opted out of the standardized tests, according to The New York Times. Local administrators said previously that 10.1 percent of students in the Fulton City School District submitted letters of refusal signed by parents and 15.3 percent in the Oswego City School District.
One concern of parents who have their children opt out is the use of the data gathered from the assessments, according to John Sheffield, a former Board of Regents candidate and Central Square School District teacher who has been advocating locally for the movement. Even though a moratorium has been placed on using test scores to evaluate teacher performance, the information is still going to outside parties and being used to make decisions that affect students, he said.
"That's a big problem parents have complained about. They don't want people having their data," Sheffield said. "The data is still going to be used to at the local level to make decisions about education." Sheffield said the source of the tests is also cause for concern. Even though the state has agreed to change the test makers from Pearson Education— which has drawn criticism in the past for designing excessively difficult ques-tions— to Questar Assessment, that change won't take effect until the next school year, he said.
According to Sheffield, the tests are not made with the assistance of teachers from the state, as previous exams were. He said the questions tend to be developmentally inappropriate, testing students on material that would normally be several grades above them.
"You still have a Pearson test that's going to be written way above grade level. Your data is going to be flawed to begin with," Sheffield said.
On March 21, the newly elected Board of Regents chancellor, Betty Rosa, said if she were not on the board she would opt her own children out of the exams. She said ultimately the decision rests with parents and their children, but she wants to rebuild a sense of trust with parents to move forward.
Sheffield believes many parents do not opt out based on fears of funding being withheld from districts that don't meet the federal 95 percent participation requirements.
Fulton Superintendent Bill Lynch said nothing like that has happened yet, but it is a possibility he worries about. For example, if a district designated by the state as a "focus district" has excellent test scores, but doesn't have 95 percent participation, the district might not be able to then change its designation, he said.
Lynch said the tests are also important for school and district accountability, as well as evaluating student performance.
"We encourage parents to have their students participate, as I think it's part of the general program within the state and the district," Lynch said. "I think it helps us take a look at how our students are performing." Fulton Board of Education President David Cordone said he felt educators would agree the assessments have a place in the curriculum, but the current tests could have been implemented better to avoid the breakdown in trust between parents and the State Education Department.
Cordone said that, based on his training through attorneys with the New York State School Boards Association, he does not believe there is an actual policy that allows parents to have their children opt out of the tests. However, school districts continue to honor those wanting to refuse the exams out of respect for parents' wishes and the movement against such assessments, he said.
In the Central Square school district, the Board of Education sent parents a letter earlier this month explaining that it "supports a parent's right to choose whether or not their children participate" in the tests, with instructions on how to submit an opt-out letter.
Lynch said, in Fulton, administrators have fielded concerns from parents on the subject. However, the district has not made any effort to disseminate opt-out instructions to parents, and is encouraging all students to take the exams