Friday, April 12, 2013

Speaking Out Is Better Than Opting Out

As New York State’s elementary and middle school students  are about to begin taking their annual state exams in English Language Arts and Math, controversy around these high-stakes standardized state assessments is increasing.  An anti-test movement is growing among parents who are frustrated about the emphasis on this type of assessment and the time devoted to standardized tests. 
Opt-out websites are appearing on the internet created by parents who are skeptical of the value of the testing regimen and don’t want their children subjected to the hours of testing.  These idealistic intentions, however, will not solve a problem of overreliance on standardized tests.    

There is no legal way for a parent to pull their child from the state testing program, just as they cannot declare their child will no longer take math quizzes.  Nevertheless, advice on how to keep one’s child from sitting for the state tests is being disseminated.  Some parents advocate keeping their child home on test days, but this is not a legal absence.  Others suggest pulling the child out of school once the exam has started, which would be unfairly disruptive to other students. 
Many websites suggest telling a child to refuse to take the tests.  That approach is striking for the burden it puts on the child.  What is gained by putting a child in a position where he or she is asked to defy either their teacher or their parent?  Civil disobedience is a complex personal act, not something that should be imposed on a child.  Can an elementary school student distinguish why they would refuse one test but not another? 

Furthermore, refusing to have a child tested is not a benign act; there are consequences for both the school and the child.  Federal and state laws require annual testing in 3rd through 8th grades.  Student performance on the state tests is used to determine if schools are effectively educating their students.  Poor scores have consequences for a school’s program and for teachers’ evaluations.  If too few students take the tests, the school’s performance is rated lower.  Schools can be forced to restructure or close as a result of poor performance on state tests.  The tests are also used to assess individual student progress and are used to determine whether a student needs additional help. 

Many school leaders, meaning superintendents and board of education members, share parents’ concerns about testing but school leaders must take an oath to uphold the law.  While they may advocate for change, they are compelled to comply with the law.  The schools have no options around administering these tests. 

What an individual (or a movement) can do
Testing laws do not take away the public’s voice, and people should not conclude they are helpless.  But people need to direct their concerns to the actual decision makers, in this case the Board of Regents and federal representatives. 

It is the Board of Regents who makes the decisions about the design and administration of New York’s assessments.    The Board of Regents is the state’s board of education.   It is made up of 17 individuals elected by a joint vote of the State Assembly and Senate to set education policy for the state.  Most of the Regents represent one of 13 state judicial districts, so there is a Regent who views each community as his or her constituency.  Another 4 Regents serve as At Large members.  Together they hire the Commissioner of Education, just as local school boards hire the superintendent.  The Regents are an autonomous unit of the government, constitutionally separate from the Governor and the Legislature.
Two Regents live here in Rochester.  If someone wants to see state education policy changed, they are the people to talk to.  Or write.  Or email.  Below is a link to the Board of Regents website along with contact information for the Chancellor, Vice Chancellor and the two local Regents. 

In addition to Regents requirements, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (No Child Left Behind) is the original federal law that mandated this testing.  This law is overdue for reauthorization in Washington, so anyone wanting to see changes in its requirements should contact their federal representatives. 
If you are someone who is troubled by the state’s testing regimen, speak out.  But make sure you are speaking to the actual decision makers.

Merryl H Tisch,
Chancellor; At Large
Regents Office, 89 Washington Avenue, Albany, NY 12234
Phone: (518) 474-5889 Email:

Anthony S. Bottar,
Vice Chancellor; Judicial District V -- Herkimer, Jefferson, Lewis, Oneida, Onondaga, and Oswego Counties
120 Madison Street, Suite 1600, AXA Tower II, Syracuse, NY 13202
Phone: (315) 422-3466 Email:

Wade S Norwood,
At Large
74 Appleton Street, Rochester, NY 14611
Phone (585) 436-2944 Email:

T. Andrew Brown,
Judicial District VII - Cayuga, Livingston, Monroe, Ontario, Seneca, Steuben, Wayne, Yates Counties
925 Crossroads Building, Two State Street, Rochester, NY 14614
Phone (585) 454-3667 Email:


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