Opt Out Movement Is Heard

Photo caption: In the Huntington School District, which includes Finley Middle School, 333 students, or approximately 16 percent, opted out of the test, according to a school district spokesman.

Photo caption: In the Huntington School District, which includes Finley Middle School, 333 students, or approximately 16 percent, opted out of the test, according to a school district spokesman.

Amid a firestorm of controversy that’s pitted the education community against the governor and state education officials against educators and teachers unions, the standardized testing at the center of it all has gone on. Earlier this week, students in grades 3-8 sat for the state standardized tests in English Language Arts – the first of three tests in various subject areas scheduled in the coming weeks. But significant numbers of students were missing for the test.

The “opt out” movement – a grassroots effort that urged parents to hold their children back from testing – protested both the emphasis placed by the state education department on standardized testing and the efforts by the governor to tie teacher evaluations to test results.

The tactic of tying state test results to revamped teacher evaluations is not the first time that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has pushed his agenda by tying it to the budget process. If his intent had been to start a dialogue that will lead to considered and effective change that will serve the children of the state, the tactic was a success. But that doesn’t seem to be what he had in mind.

In fact, the tactic seems to have backfired, as parents, urged on by organized efforts from teachers’ unions, exercised their prerogatives to opt their children out of the testing.

The backlash comes with some risks as education officials, who argue that test results are needed to assess the efficacy of curriculum and teaching, could take action against school districts that fall below a threshold of 95-percent of students taking the tests. Early indication is that many districts will fall below that threshold, some by significant numbers.

While we agree that some testing is necessary, many feel there is undue emphasis on scores with the result that individualized and creative approaches to teaching take a back seat. Like it or not, teaching to the test will become the norm.

Worse, however, is tying teacher evaluations to test scores by such a significant amount as the governor has proposed.

We agree that teachers need to be held to standards, and that powerful teacher unions need to ease up on restrictions that make it difficult to weed out bad apples in the teaching barrel. We also agree with the governor’s proposal to put in place a system that monetarily rewards the best teachers. But there are major flaws in what he proposes.

Today, a highly effective teacher is likely to be assigned the most challenging students. This is the best for the student. How does putting that teacher’s job and career in danger provide an incentive to continue taking on those challenges?

This also mitigates the role of the family in education. If a child does not study and the family does not care if the child studies, is it fair to say the teacher is not doing a good job? Quite the contrary, a teacher educating a child without the support from the family is far more difficult.  So if the child gets a “C” grade because the teacher pushed in the classroom, the teacher gets penalized. As the expression goes, it takes a village to raise a child – this tests dumps responsibility solely on the teachers.

These tests also fail to realize that children learn at different rates depending on ability and maturity. A poor score can mean the child is not yet ready to master a concept, no matter what an ivory tower administrator may believe. To punish teachers in this way in simply misguided.

There are a whole host of questions that deserve both discussion and action, but pushing the education community’s backs to the wall is not the best way to get it done, nor is using our children as pawns in a political process.

Between the bungled rollout of the Common Core curriculum and this testing debacle, state education offices are going to have a difficult time regaining the trust of the public. They need to do that. Admitting their blunders and putting plans out on the table without the governor’s heavy handed threats hanging over it all would be a good start.

We applaud all who decided to “opt out.” Let’s send a message to the governor and his appointed Board of Regents. Let’s tell them our children and our teachers are important to us and not to be part of an experiment or a token in the game of politics.