Is it beneficial for schools to have data gleaned from state English language arts tests given to students this week?
Can it be an important experience for students to struggle through a test and learn how to handle stressful situations?
Given the flawed rollout of the Common Core State Standards, lack of teacher training and some materials, do parents have the right to keep their children out from taking the tests?
Those three points have come to a head in the way area school districts have handled preparations for standardized tests given this week. Depending on who you ask, a letter sent to parents from Tim Mains, Jamestown Public Schools superintendent, either encouraged parents to prepare their children to take the test or misled parents into believing it was mandatory for children to take the tests. "Contrary to what some have claimed, they are not optional," read Mains' letter. "They are an essential means for us to measure how well we are doing at delivering the curriculum to your children. Besides telling you how well your child is learning, the scores tell us how well our schools and teachers are supporting your child's progress."
At the same time, students or parents haven't been punished for opting out of the tests in Jamestown or districts throughout Chautauqua County. Wouldn't that make the tests, in fact, optional?
A letter to parents from Chautauqua Lake Central School's testing coordinator says there is "no provision under the law" for parents to opt their children out of tests and that schools have no authority to allow students to opt out of testing. Two paragraphs later, the same letter states, "...if you are going to direct your child to refuse the test, we need to receive your intent in writing prior to test administration. All students in attendance on test days and/or makeup days must be presented with the NYS assesment, including your child. However, after the directions have been explained, the test will be removed in response to your request. The district has developed protocols for students in this situation."
Again, doesn't that lead a reasonable person to believe the tests are optional?
Let's cut through the bureaucratic language and say plainly what those letters mean. The state Education Department requires schools to administer the tests to all students in the building. To say no provision has been made for students who don't take the test is false when schools throughout the state have done just that.
Results from standardized tests can be an important tool for schools as they tailor instruction to better prepare students for college or careers. School officials are right in trying to explain to questioning parents how much weight the state is placing on the tests, both in terms of rankings and participation targets that can affect future school funding and how a child's performance on the tests can dictate how much additional help they will receive moving forward in school.
Standardized tests are nothing new, but the fight over the Common Core State Standards has put the tests in a new light. It is something that probably should have been handled better in the Common Core's rollout - but that rollout has been so rushed and flawed that some schools still don't have the textbooks needed to teach Common Core material, haven't had the training time to create teaching methods that comply with Common Core teaching modules and are left with a testing system that, because of funding limitations, only allows parents and teachers to see how students did on 25 percent of the questions.
Even Common Core supporters like Gov. Andrew Cuomo realize there are problems. The state's recently approved budget includes a two-year delay before placing test scores on student transcripts or considering test scores in promoting students from grade to grade. According to the New York Daily News, Cuomo is now also considering delaying use of the test results in evaluating teachers.
Given the vacillation of state officials and concerns of parents, the state must end the confusion over state testing by issuing clearly worded guidance on the issue that includes possible penalties for schools if children don't take the tests and policies for schools to put in place if a student doesn't take the tests.
Language and guidance from the state on this matter is unclear when it should be anything but. Schools are put in the impossible position of saying tests are required while having to act passively when a student doesn't take the test.
This confusion and political doubletalk needs to end.