Grappling With ‘Opt-Out’ Dilemma

By Long Islander News staff


 In the wake of a regional opt-out campaign among parents and teachers, Commack Superintendent Donald James and Rep. Steve Israel meet with Department of Education officials in Washington, D.C., to discuss alternatives that may reduce the mandated number of tests children are required to take each year.

In the wake of a regional opt-out campaign among parents and teachers, Commack Superintendent Donald James and Rep. Steve Israel meet with Department of Education officials in Washington, D.C., to discuss alternatives that may reduce the mandated number of tests children are required to take each year.

To opt out, or not to opt out?

With the controversial grades 3-8 Common Core mathematics and English exams as well as the grades 4 and 8 science tests just around the corner, parents are grappling with the dilemma of whether or not to take the plunge and opt their children out of the tests.

The English Language Arts tests are set for April 14-16, and the math tests follow on April 22-24.

Opting out, or refusing the tests, has become a rallying cry of advocates against the Common Core, a national curriculum adopted by 44 states in 2010 -- including New York -- to create consistent educational standards across the country and ensure pupils are college- and work-ready when they graduate high school.

Opponents argue the curriculum’s demands and the assessments are too much, too soon for primary and middle school-aged children, and have urged parents to “opt out.” They hope to stop what they argue is inappropriate, high-stakes testing tied to an unproven curriculum, and to prevent corporate interests from gaining an undue influence in the public school system. They also argue the tests short-change the most at-risk students and restrain the most gifted ones.

Those opponents now include Karen Magee, the president of the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), who on Monday urged a widespread boycott of the examinations and said the group is “encouraging parents to opt out.”

However, Meryl Tisch, chancellor of the state’s Board of Regents, which governs implementation of educational policy, calls opting out “a terrible mistake.” Refusing the state tests, the commissioner said, “eliminates important information about how our kids are doing.”

“Why on earth would you not want to know whether your child is on track for success in the fifth grade or success in college? Why would you not want to know how your child and your school are doing compared to other children in the district, region, and state?” she said. “Why would you not want to know the progress of our multi-billion dollar investment in education? Why would you not want to know whether all students are making progress, not just the lucky few?”

South Huntington parent Mary Beth Steenson Kraese is at the forefront of a local anti-common core and anti-state testing movement known as South Huntington Parents Against Common Core. This is the first year, Kraese said, that she has opted her children out. Unlike the chancellor, she said, she did not believe that the tests assessed her children’s progress.

      “[The testing] is not about my child, it’s about government and money.” she said.

      Kraese went on to say that she felt her children were being tortured for goals that had nothing to do with their learning achievements.

“Are they grading my child? Are they grading the teachers? Are they doing this to make money? Why are they doing this?” she asked.

Kraese has three boys – one in third grade, one in sixth grade, and one in eleventh grade.

Kevin Gannon, another parent with children in the South Huntington School district, is opting his children out for the second-straight year.

“I have two kids in second and fifth grades, and I opted them out last year and this year because I just think that the number on the testing doesn’t evaluate my children; if I want to know how my kids are doing, I’ll ask the teacher,” he said.

Gannon expressed concerns about standardized education, explaining that he felt taking the community element away from education was doing children of diverse backgrounds a disservice.

“I think it’s getting to the point where parents are being pushed aside and the state is taking over. We’re not common, my kids are not common, I teach them that every day,” he said.

South Huntington School District Superintendent Dave Bennardo said the district did not want to involve children in a political issue.

 “We respect everyone’s opinions and right to make their own decisions. However, we are not releasing any statements that might entangle children in the issue or further inflame an adult political issue,” he said.

Commack School District Superintendent Donald James, who traveled recently to Washington, D.C. with Congressman Steve Israel (D-Huntington) to push for fewer mandatory tests, argued the number and type of tests “are developmentally inappropriate and not necessary.”

During a March 12 board meeting, James condemned a proposal by Governor Andrew Cuomo to increase the weight testing held in teacher evaluations to 50 percent. During budget negotiations, the number was reduced, but expected to increase from current levels.

“Especially given the fact that the tests are ill-conceived, they’re inappropriate, they’re too often, we don’t get enough information, we don’t get the scores – it’s taking a bad idea and making it worse,” James said.

The Commack School District, where the teacher’s union endorsed the “I Refuse” campaign, offers “guidance regarding New York State assessment refusal” on its website for parents interested in refusing the test.

To refuse the test in Commack, parents must submit a hard-copy letter to building administrators. Pupils who refuse the test will be assigned to an alternate location and will be permitted to read or write until the test period ends.

State education leaders have taken a hard line on the Common Core assessments. A spokesperson said Monday the tests are required by the federal government, “a required part of the instructional program, and there is no provision in law or regulation for a school official to refuse to administer the tests or for a parent to refuse the tests.”

Widespread refusal, they argue, could put a district in peril of dipping under a 95-percent participation requirement on state tests to achieve Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).

If a school does not make AYP for two consecutive years, it is designated a School in Need of Improvement by the state education department and is required to participate in a School Quality Review (SQR). This includes, at a minimum, a self-assessment of the educational program and the development of a School Improvement Plan which must be approved by the State Education Department. 

According to the state education department, continuously failing to meet AYP will include additional sanctions and possible consequences related to the Federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) Grant, costing the district state aid.

Commack officials stressed that refusing the tests, which are used as a portion of assessing a child’s needs, will not disqualify any pupil from receiving services.

“State tests are only one of multiple measures used by teachers and administrators to make informed instructional decisions regarding student placement in academic programs,” the district’s FAQ section of its website reads.

Students who take the test and score below the state-designated performance level on one of more of the state tests, however, must be provided Academic Intervention Services (AIS), Commack officials said.


Featuring reporting by Danny Schrafel, Andrew Wroblewski and Carina Livoti. The story is written by Schrafel.