Written by Jane Lawrence Wednesday, 18 December 2013 00:00
Over the past few decades, Long Island parents and students have had to come to terms with various changes in both curriculum and standardized testing procedures dictated by the New York State Education Department. But none of these changes has caused such vocal and wide-spread outrage from both parents and educators as the implementation of the new Common Core standards and the high-stakes testing that accompanies them.
While the controversy over Common Core is multi-dimensional, ranging from concerns about the swift implementation of the program, the appropriateness of the curriculum and the loss of local autonomy, the Dec. 11 forum, sponsored and moderated by New York State Assemblyman Charles Lavine, focused specifically on the mandated testing regiment associated with Common Core, its effect on our students and the challenges our local school district teachers and administrators now face.
A capacity crowd filled the main chamber of Glen Cove City Hall to hear a panel of experts speak on the topic and to have an opportunity to have their voices heard and their questions answered. Speaking at the forum were Maria Rianna, Superintendent of Schools for the Glen Cove School District, Dr. Arnold Dodge, chair of the Department of Educational Leadership and Administration at LIU Post, and Jeanette Deutermann, parent, former teacher, co-founder of the group New York State Allies for Education and founder and administrator of the Facebook page, “Long Island Opt-out Info.”
Rianna spoke eloquently about the practical challenges now facing school districts. Rianna is not necessarily against the concept of Common Core standards and, in fact, feels that some of the curriculum changes are positive ones, especially those that endeavor to develop critical thinking skills; however, she firmly stated that “the over-reliance on state testing as a single measure of student progress is decimating the educational experience.”
Additionally, the new mandate linking teachers’ performance reviews to their students’ performance on the assessments has led to an even further increase in the number of tests being administered and the amount of class time being devoted to test preparation.
“Under the former testing mandates,” said Rianna, “out of 180 school days approximately 140 were actual instruction days and the remaining were devoted to testing and test preparation. Now the number of school days devoted to testing and test preparation has significantly increased.” Districts are further pressured with the constant threat of the loss of state aid should the district not measure up to the new standards.
Dr. Dodge spoke next, saying, “We are all here with the common interest in what’s good for our kids. This is not.” His anger with the new testing mandates was perfectly clear. “This is an awful testing regime on both the state and national level,” said Dodge.
“This is the old testing regime on steroids and the children are our tenderest victims.”
Dodge has traveled extensively to study educational systems worldwide and wants no one to be fooled by “studies” suggesting that American students are lagging behind by comparing the performance of our students to those in other countries such as Finland.
Such studies are outright “fraud,” said Dodge, “based on bad science.”
“What’s the magic in Finland?” he asked. In Finland there is only a 4 percent poverty rate, no standardized testing, teaching is one of the most revered professions and teachers are given full autonomy over the curriculum. In addition, the population is much smaller and homogeneous. He questioned, “How does this in any way compare to a country such as ours, so vast and diverse?”
Dodge urged parents to speak up and take a stand against what he called the developmentally inappropriate standards and testing regimes that are so damaging to our children.
Jeanette Deutermann, the final speaker, became involved in the opt-out movement, refusing to allow her children to be subjected to inappropriate testing, when her own son, who formerly loved school, was starting to complain of stomach aches and headaches on the days leading up to the tests. Deutermann agreed that what we all want for our students is a good education and good standards, but she asked the audience, “What price are we willing to pay?”
Deutermann’s remark that third-graders now spend more time taking mandated state assessments than graduate students spend taking the MCATs or the bar exams drew a collective gasp from the audience. Deutermann has received literally hundreds of emails from parents and teachers describing how the new mandated testing has negatively affected children, including reports of hysterical crying, throwing up before the test, throwing up on the test, and even the soiling of underpants. One teacher reported that one child in her class started to cry, a second child started to cry and soon her entire class was crying uncontrollably.
Furthermore, in many districts, students who did not do well on the assessments were later pulled out for additional AIS time at the expense of specials, such as art or music. Again Deutermann asked, “At what price?” The Long Island Opt-out Info Facebook group has more than 13,500 members, and “last spring,” said Deutermann, “over 1,000 kids across Long Island successfully opted-out of mandated testing.”
Several parents in the audience shared their concerns about the changes brought on by the implementation of the Common Core curriculum. One mother stated that her fifth-grader used to love school but now comes home every day bored. A father of three school-aged children was concerned about a curriculum that appears to be “dominated by frantic test preparation,” and several residents expressed concern about the negative effects on special education students and English language learners.
However, the majority of the questions from the audience were directly related to opting-out: What if my child just stays home that day? If my child refuses the test, will the teachers try to coax him to take it anyway? If a child refuses a test, will they automatically get placed in AIS? If my fifth-grader doesn’t take the tests will it negatively affect her placement in classes in middle school?
Deutermann explained that while no one can make an individual child take the tests, districts as a whole cannot decide to “opt-out.” Each district will handle the situation differently, but since districts are forced to comply, parents who choose to have their child opt-out should be prepared for a possible backlash. It is not the schools’ fault. Their hands are tied.
Superintendent Rianna assured the Glen Cove parents in the audience that no child will be penalized for opting out. “We will be as supportive as necessary,” stated Rianna, who added that she and Dr. Israel, the assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction and technology, are currently working together to determine appropriate procedures for any students who do opt out.
There may be some relief on the horizon. Although educational policy is set by the Board of Regents and not the State Legislature, Assemblyman Lavine noted that the regents are appointed by the legislature; there are currently four regents up for appointment.
Legislators have been listening to what parents and educators have been saying and Common Core reform is the one area that has substantial bi-partisan support. A change in the composition of the Board of Regents may, hopefully, lead to some common sense reform.
But in closing, Dr. Dodge emphasized that it is the parents who will have the biggest influence on change. “We are at a crossroads now,” he said, “it is up to you to make your voices heard.”