Opting out is one option for parents who disagree with state education testing

By Melanie Savage - Staff Writer
Statewide - posted Fri., Feb. 14, 2014
As teachers continue to speak out against high-stakes testing, more parents choose to opt children out of tests. Courtesy photo. - Contributed Photo

A Jan. 17 op-ed by veteran West Hartford middle school English teacher Elizabeth Natale turned up the volume on discussions about the Common Core State Standards, the related Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium testing and the new teacher evaluation program.

In a piece entitled, “Why I Want to Give Up Teaching,” Natale wrote of “government attempts to improve education [that] are stripping the joy out of teaching and doing nothing to help children.” Natale’s piece went viral.

On Jan. 28, Gov. Dannel Malloy sent a letter to the Performance Evaluation Advisory Council, asking the Council to give school districts the flexibility to delay the new teacher evaluation system, an integral part of Malloy’s education reform package adopted in 2012.

On Feb. 4, Senate Republican leader John McKinney called for the resignation of State Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor.

“Commissioner Pryor’s chief assignment was to implement Gov. Malloy’s education reform initiatives, including Common Core and teacher evaluations, and he has failed,” McKinney said at a press conference.

Meanwhile, as the debut of the Smarter Balanced Assessment grows nearer (tests are administered in March), there is a growing movement among Connecticut parents to opt their children out of the test. The State Department of Education provided a memo, dated December of 2013, advising superintendents about how to handle opt-out requests. With the heading, “Background, History, and Suggested Protocols for Addressing Parent Requests for Students to ‘Opt-Out’ of Mandated State Testing,” the memo outlines suggested responses.

“…There are no legal/policy directions when parents seek to remove a child from statewide testing,” reads the memo. “Until recently, there have only been a handful of requests for exemptions each year. Districts are now reporting greater numbers of parents desiring to remove their child(ren) from participation in the statewide testing program.”

Parents have chosen to opt their children out of the Connecticut Mastery Test, the precursor to the SBAC, for numerous reasons. Common reasons include concern for the amount of stress the tests produce and concern regarding loss of instructional time. This year, Connecticut school districts had the option of administering the CMTs and CAPTs (the CMT equivalent for older students) or the SBAC. The vast majority of districts opted to administer the SBAC, which this year is a field test.

According to the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, the field tests measure “the performance of more than 20,000 assessment items and performance tasks.” The field tests are also “an opportunity to make sure technology systems and administration logistics are ready.” Parents have already been advised that they will not receive results from this year’s SBAC, as they normally do for the CMTs or the CAPTs. The 2014 field tests will be used “to set preliminary achievement standards in summer 2014,” according to the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. So there will be no measure of students’ mastery this year, because mastery levels have yet to be set.

Recently, a group of people from all over the state of Connecticut met in Hartford to discuss opting out of the SBAC. There were representatives from Danbury, New Britain, New Milford, Hebron and Hartford. There were school psychologists, teachers, parents, early childhood advocates, and a representative from Big Brothers/Big Sisters. Teachers with multiple degrees talked of taking sample tests and having difficulty with the questions. The test design is seriously flawed, said the teachers. “So we are setting the kids up for failure,” said Bill Morrison, a teacher from Hartford.

“The amount of testing we’re doing is incredibly stressful for kids,” said Jack Bestor, an elementary school psychologist for 40 years in Westport public schools. “I also personally think it’s taking too much time for kids to be tested instead of instructed.”

Aggie Kurzyna, a mother from New Britain who planned to opt her fourth-grader, Jordan, out of the SBAC, said that resources in her district were being allocated into testing instead of into the classroom. Last year, said Kurzyna, her district laid off 64 paraprofessionals. “This is in a district that should be hiring more paras,” she said.

Kurzyna spoke of the changes she’d seen since her oldest, now 20, was in elementary school. “There used to be 20 kids in a class with one para,” she said. Since No Child Left Behind, the ratios had been changing. In the typical classroom in her son’s elementary school, said Kurzyna, there were currently 28 students in a classroom, with no paraprofessional assistance. “I’m opting out because testing has become high stakes,” she said. “Everyone has too much to lose - the community, the kids, everyone.”

Morrison pointed to laws and Supreme Court decisions supporting a parent’s right to make decisions for his/her child. He encouraged parents not to be intimidated by a district’s strong-arm tactics.

“If I don’t take the test, will I not pass to the next grade?” asked an 8-year-old boy who had attended the meeting with his mother.

“Absolutely not,” reassured the adults, emphasizing that the standardized tests would in no way affect a student’s academic performance or permanent record.

Visit United Opt Out National’s website (http://unitedoptout.com) for more information.

Editor’s Note: The author is preparing a story from the perspective of those who support the Common Core Standards. If you would like to contribute to that piece, please email her at msavage51@comcast.net.

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