Another school year is ending, and about half of the students in Oceanside and Island Park did not take the grades three to eight state standardized English Language Arts and math tests. Come September, though, schools might be forced to either increase the number of test takers or pay.
On June 11, the State Board of Regents gave preliminary approval to new rules that would force schools to use federal funds to improve participation, targeting school districts with high opt-out rates for state intervention. The provisions are framed as reinforcing the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which says that 95 percent of a district’s students must take the standardized tests. However, the law leaves it up to states to decide on an individual basis how it will foster more test participation.
Chancellor Betty Rosa, of the Board of Regents, noted that the regulations are bound to put the community “at odds.” “On the one hand,” she said, “ESSA gives that credible signal to parents that it’s OK, that you have parental choice. At the same time, they signal the second part, that says, ‘but . . . the state has to act like the heavy, the cop, the person who’s going to create the constructs for sanctions.’”
Rosa concluded, “It’s a very convoluted message that says, ‘Parents, you have a choice, but schools, you don’t have a choice.’”
Still, the Board of Regents voted 14-3 to advance the new ESSA regulations, with two abstentions. The rules will be back before the Regents in September for final approval.
As of this year, the Oceanside school district’s average opt-out rate for the ELA state examinations was 50 percent, and 49 for mathematics, according to Board of Education Vice President Sandie Schoell.
Schoell said she believes students are doing a good job, but worries about the introduced measures negatively impacting how the schools look on paper based on test scores.
“They are setting up a system here of . . . punishment . . . trying to get more people to take these tests,” she said. “What they need to do is fix their tests and make sure that their tests are doing what they’re supposed to be doing, and that they’re fair and they aren’t setting up children for failure.”
The option for parents to choose whether or not their children sit for the exams is an issue for the state and federal governments, said Superintendent Dr. Phyllis Harrington. She agreed with Schoell that the tests should be improved to satisfy parents so they stop keeping their children from taking them.
“Keep in mind that, really, the heart of why this took on such a life is a lot [of it] having to do with trying to connect this one test to teachers’ performance,” Harrington said, “which is not appropriate, as far as I’m concerned.”
Laura Lisi, who has a second-grader in School No. 5, an eighth-grader in Ocean-side Middle School and a 10th-grader at Oceanside High School, weighed in on the subject, too.
“I know who my kids are as students . . . [The exams] were not appropriate,” she said. Her oldest son sat for one of the exams when he was in fourth grade. Lisi recalled how long the examinations were and how unclearly the questions were presented. She also said she believes evaluating teachers based on the results diminished their importance.
Lisi attended a number of forums around Nassau County about the tests before she decided to have her children sit them out. Since they are not struggling academically, she said, she thinks the exams are unnecessary, especially considering that parents do not receive the results until the following school year.
“I’m not against testing, but I think these tests were wrong,” Lisi said. She added that she disagreed with the Board of Regents’ preliminary provisions, saying, “They created this mess. They should fix it.”
In Island Park, opt-out rates for the ELA exams were 46 percent, and 41 percent for mathematics, according to Superintendent Dr. Rosmarie Bovino.
She said she believed the assessments have “added minimally” to her staff’s knowledge of their students because they do not adapt to a student’s proficiency and are “often poorly written.” Bovino added that the test results are provided months later, too late for proper review, and that they do not represent a teacher’s effectiveness.
“I’m disheartened to think that now I might be directed to set aside federal aid for focusing on increasing test participation . . . instead of using this money to teach reading and math,” she said of the Board of Regents’ new policy.
“It is naive to believe that parents who opt their child out of testing could be coerced into testing,” Bovino said. “I have too much respect for the parents of my community to believe that.”
Parent Stacy Epstein, who has an eighth- and sixth-grader at Lincoln Orens Middle School, agreed. “They shouldn’t penalize the entire district,” she said. “This isn’t even a valid test — it doesn’t measure a kid’s worth.”
While her oldest did not take the tests this year, Epstein said, her youngest sat for the state exams, but told his mother he didn’t try his best, because he heard from other students, “They don’t even count.”
Epstein said she believes there is too much value placed on the tests, which she thinks contain inappropriately challenging content, and that they judge children too critically. Although she said she would probably opt her son out next time around, she would keep an eye out for changes next year.
“As much as I disagree, it’s a good idea to have them take the tests,” she said, adding that she hoped for significant improvements.