Test Refusal Rates Soar Across the East End

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By Tessa Raebeck

For the first time, the New York State Education Department has asked the Board of Cooperative Educational Services to compile data from school districts to learn what percentage of students in the state refused to take its tests in grades three through eight. Parents who opposed Governor Andrew Cuomo’s decision to linked overarching and controversial educational reforms to the state’s budget and the amount set aside for school aid, have voiced their dissent by having their children “refuse the tests,” or not sit for the exams, which cover English Language Arts (ELA) and mathematics.

Nearly 40 percent of Sag Harbor students in grades three through eight did not sit for New York State’s standardized tests on Common Core mathematics last week, according to Sag Harbor School District Superintendent Katy Graves. The numbers represented a 9- percent increase in test refusal from the English Language Arts (ELA) in the same grades earlier this month. The decrease in participation is likely attributed to the increased publicity of the refuse the test movement statewide.

Although much higher than in previous years, test refusal rates on the East End were not as high as those in western Long Island, where refusal rates reached nearly 80 percent in some districts.

Some administrators fear the substantial non-participation rates seen across the state this month—the largest in recent memory, if not ever—will affect not only teachers’ jobs, who could be rated as ineffective and fired if enough students opt out, but also the data some schools use to drive curriculum.

But teachers’ unions, involved parents and education experts from around the country say the reforms are threatening the human, interactive aspects of education so many students need. By raising the high stakes on standardized tests even higher, they say the governor is encouraging “teaching to the test,” which they fear replaces creative projects and interactive lessons with redundant workbooks and monotonous drills, substituting “tricks” for ideas.

Both the overhaul and the reaction could leave many teachers and administrators out of jobs should their students not perform up to par—regardless of the socioeconomic environment they teach in. Many of the students refusing the tests are the same students who perform best on them, and schools like Sag Harbor, where students traditionally excel, could see their scores plummet as refusal rates rise.

Yet, since the governor’s budget passed at the end of March, advocates for public education—including many teachers who could lose their jobs as a result—have declared refusing the test as the only means of resistance left.

Academically but not legally, test data is considered invalid if participation is limited. The federal government calls for 95 percent participation on a state’s standardized tests, but it is unclear whether any action will be taken. New York State has made no announcement as to what will happen to districts that have high refusal rates—now nearly every district in New York—and some fear school districts that did not play ball with the governor will see their state aid slashed.

“I hear that there will be no action taken,” Ms. Graves told the Sag Harbor Board of Education on Monday, April 27. “We have not gotten any guidance documents from New York State yet, I will just keep everybody posted.”

“So at this point we don’t know if we lost the school aid or not,” explained Chris Tice, vice president of the school board.

In the Bridgehampton School District, 37 percent of students in grades 3 through 8 refused to take their respective mathematics exams and 34 percent refused to take the ELA tests, Superintendent/Principal Dr. Lois Favre reported.

“Parents are genuinely concerned about the tests,” she told the board of education at its April 22 meeting.

Southampton Middle School Principal Tim Frazier said 54 percent of his students had not sat for their mathematics exam and estimated the district wide refusal rate was 55 percent.

East Hampton had far lower refusal rates, with 9 percent of student opting out of ELA and 15 percent not taking the math exams. Last year, all but 2 percent participated.

“As a building principal, the testing gives us good data to support and help children, and to improve the teaching and learning in the building,” East Hampton Middle School Principal Charles Soriano said Wednesday, adding, “The Common Core linked testing provides another opportunity for our students to develop comfort and familiarity with the genre of times, standardized testing.”

At the Montauk School, 46 out of 208 students, or 22 percent, refused to take the mathematics exam, versus about five refusals last year. Principal Jack Perna said on Tuesday, April 28, that he has “no idea” how the test refusals will affect teacher evaluations and state aid for next year and that “the state seems to be ‘confused’ as well.”

“While the Common Core standards are good, the assessments are not,” he said, “and using them so strongly for teacher evaluation is wrong.”

The governor had voiced his desire for half of a teacher’s evaluation to rely on students’ scores—even if they do not teach the subjects that are tested—but the final percentages will be determined by the State Education Department.

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