More than half in defiant district opt out of testing

More than half of Fairport students in grades 3-8 will refuse the state English language arts exams next week, Interim Superintendent Bill Cala said Friday.

Out of about 2,740 eligible students, 1,534 have informed the district they will not take the tests, Cala said. That is 56 percent of them.

The rates are lower, but still significant, in other districts. In West Irondequoit, 27 percent of 1,637 eligible students have opted out, according to a district spokeswoman. Webster and Spencerport are at about 30 percent.

Pittsford is at 16 percent, Rush-Henrietta's rate is 11 percent and Greece is at 11.5 percent. The Rochester City School District declined to release its opt-out tally.

All those tallies are sure to rise further before the first tests are handed out Tuesday. The refusal rates, particularly in Fairport, make a mockery of the New York State Education Department requirement that 95 percent of students take the tests so districts can properly calculate their test-taking progress.

Fairport has been a hotbed of opposition to the tests and the state education framework in general. Cala is a darling of the anti-reform movement and a rally in Fairport in February drew thousands.

Those opting out of the state tests are concerned that they're not beneficial, or even harmful, to students, and that they are unfairly linked to teacher evaluations.

The state has acknowledged some flaws in the tests and their implementation but insists they provide essential data for school improvement.

Tom Dunn, a spokesman with the state Education Department, said in an email Friday that when a district fails to ensure that students participate in required state tests, the U.S. Education Department expects the states to consider imposing sanctions, including withholding funds.

He said sanctions are on a case-by-case basis, and take into account for the degree and length of time the district has failed to meet participation requirements and the reasons for the failure.

"However, the real impact of opting out is that we lose the chance — at both the state and the local level — to learn about the progress of our students and their schools," Dunn said. "That loss is immediate and it is permanent."

The parent-led opt-out movement took a leap this spring partly with the help of teachers unions, which have lent their support to the cause. The Rochester Teachers Association held a press conference Friday afternoon encouraging parents to refuse the tests and providing a form letter for them to submit to their district.

"Testing is robbing our students of precious time for learning and creating unprecedented levels of anxiety," union president Adam Urbanski said. "It's leading students to say, 'I used to love school,' and teachers to say, 'I love to teach but I hate my job.'"

Mia Sinclair, a third-grade special education teacher at School 7, said the tests are particularly unfair for students with disabilities who do not receive some of the accommodations they're entitled to for classroom work and other tests.

"As a teacher, I feel we need to really examine a system that does not have students' best interests at heart," she said. "I hope more parents do opt out."

Superintendent Bolgen Vargas released a statement in response to the RTA news conference, which read: "Our teachers and students are working hard, and the state tests are one important measure among many that allow them to demonstrate improved achievement. Just like the superintendents in Brighton and Pittsford, I believe in our district's children and I want them to take the assessments so that we can see the progress they are making."

At the same time, some Monroe County district leaders released letters to parents urging them to let their students participate, partly from fear of state consequences if they dip below 95 percent.

"I recognize and respect that the issues associated with tying the state budget to mandates (teacher evaluation and student testing) raise serious concerns and strongly held opinions," Brockport Superintendent Lesli Myers wrote. "However, I do not wish our children to get caught in the middle of this debate. There are no easy answers to the challenges facing public education, but let's keep students first as we work toward the solutions."

While most districts have asked parents to inform them in writing if their children will opt out, the students can do so at any time up until the day of the test.


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