BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) - State standardized tests aren't what they were when you were in school. As one concerned parent says, "I don't think parents are really aware that these tests have really changed."
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Children in Grades 3 through 8 now take Math and English Language Arts assessments every year - for six days, 90 minutes each day.
The questions are more complex, and your child's scores are directly tied to federal aid and the evaluation of his or her teacher's job performance.
Parents recount tales of children coming home so anxiety-ridden over the tests, they are crying, having stomach aches, even throwing up.
"Now that we've put their jobs at stake, the pressure is on the administration to put the pressure on [the teachers] and they're putting the pressure on the children. It's not fair to anyone," says mom Lisa Beckwith, whose son is in fourth grade.
Beckwith is just one of a growing number of parents who believe New York has gone overboard with standardized testing. Now, they're fighting back.
Hundreds in school districts across Western New York - from Williamsville to West Seneca to Frontier - refused to have their children take the exams this April, in what's becoming known as the opt-out movement.
"I chose to refuse largely because of what I saw happening within the classroom of my first-grader," Shirley Verrico says. "I had seen the shift in the curriculum, overall, towards a more 'teaching-to-the-test' format, and I found that upsetting."
Verrico requested for her son have the same first grade teacher that her two daughters, who are now in middle school, had.
"It was a classroom where they were very creative. They did tons of reading and writing. They learned sign language. And it was a classroom full of the kind of creativity and joy of learning that first grade should be," she explains.
But now, Verrico and other parents are seeing that creative learning disappearing from their children's classrooms. Instead, their kids are spending weeks just practicing for the tests, even in first grade - two years before they'll sit for the exams.
"Practices such as cooperative learning, discovery learning, exploratory learning. All of those things, that teachers know work well, those are being placed on the back burner," says Molly Dana, who kept her son home during the tests. Dana has some expertise on the subject - she's a trained and certified teacher herself.
Dana and others worry their children are being deprived of a well-rounded education, and suffering both academically and emotionally because of it.
"Teachers are under an enormous amount of stress to focus on Math and ELA. So there isn't time spent on Social Studies and Science, and Art and Music and Phys. Ed.," Dana notes.
"They don't have the time to interact. And it's so important [to] our growth," Beckwith adds. "These children are growing. You cannot tell me that they're going to be career- and college-ready in third grade. I don't even want to hear those words in third grade."
That's how the State Education Department has defended these standardized tests, and the new "Common Core" curriculum that was introduced this year. Children need more rigorous instruction, officials say, to be better prepared for life after high school.
"This narrow, narrow curriculum has in fact made students less ready for college. They are not skilled at critical thinking; they don't know how to approach a problem that isn't given with very detailed instruction[s]," Verrico - a college instructor - asserts.
"Social science has been studying standardized testing for 20 years, and it does not do the things that New York State is claiming it does," she says.
No one from State Ed. would do an interview for this story.
Education Commissioner Dr. John King has previously said, they expect test scores to drop by as much as 30 percent this year.
"It's almost like the system is setting teachers up to fail, and setting students up to fail," says Dana.
"The tests themselves do not necessarily show what the children are truly learning," says Patty Evans, a high school science teacher with a son in fourth grade.
The assessments include field test questions which are sometimes above-grade-level - material the students being tested haven't even learned yet.
"If you've looked at some of the sample tests that come out, I don't know that anybody would disagree that Leo Tolstoy is not necessarily a third-grade level reading," Evans notes.
Students don't get their tests back, once they've been scored. Their teachers don't get to grade the tests. And parents never see the test booklet with the actual questions -- only a score sheet with a number ranging from 1 to 4.
It arrives in the mail in August, even though the tests
are taken in April.
"So how are they using that to help my son into the next school year?" Evans wonders. "They can't possibly."
"The reports couldn't be less informative unless it was a postage stamp," Verrico says bluntly.
Lisa Beckwith shares their frustration. "I don't know any parent who would look at those scores to find out how their child is doing in school. They would call the teacher. Email the teacher. Call a parent conference. That's what I would do."
Parents who refused the test received letters, informing them the tests are a "requirement" and "there is no provision [in state law] allowing parents to opt their children out of State tests."
In a statement emailed to News 4, State Ed. Spokesman Dennis Tompkins says, "Parents who keep their children from taking these tests are essentially saying, 'I don't want to know where my child stands... and we think that that's doing them a real disservice.
Many parents find that attitude downright insulting.
"Stop telling parents who are refusing these tests that we are doing a disservice to our children," Molly Dana would like to tell NYSED. "We're not doing a disservice to our children by standing up to state laws that we know are harming our kids."
"I believe the state is creating a rift. They're afraid to talk to the parents. They're afraid to tell us anything. And that's got to change, too," Beckwith says.
...Not only for the sake of children learning, but for the financial health of school districts
At a time when virtually every school is cutting programs, parents in the opt-out movement are outraged that the State Education Department is paying Pearson - an international company - more than $32 million over four years to design the test booklets.
"Think about the number of teacher's aides that could go into classrooms [for that amount of money]," Verrico says.
"Some school districts are talking about getting rid of Kindergarten. I mean, Kindergarten, really?!" exclaims Evans.
Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is currently investigating Pearson's not-for-profit arm, the Pearson Foundation.
Schneiderman's office would not divulge the details, but sources allege the Pearson Foundation is under investigation for acting improperly in influencing state officials.
Parents also fear their children's private information is no longer private.
New York is one of five states providing personal information about its students to an electronic database - including names; addresses; race; ethnicity; disabilities; parent contact information; dates of absences, out-of-school suspensions, grades; and State standardized test scores.
The database was built by a company owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, with money from the Gates Foundation. It's run by a new non-profit, inBloom Inc., and third parties can access all the information it contains.
According to a report by The Washington Post , the U.S. Department of Education is being sued for promoting regulations that allow databases like inBloom's.
State Ed. and inBloom claim this database "mak[es] it easier [for teachers] to find learning materials that match each student's" needs.
However, state lawmakers are so concerned, there are bills in the Assembly and Senate that would make it illegal to release personal information about students to third parties, unless parents give consent.
"The fact that we have to have a law that says you can't release personal information about children is shocking, not that it's the other way around," Verrico says.
Schools where less than 95 percent of students take the state assessments may lose federal Title I money, if they qualify for it. Not all of them do; Title I funding is for schools with high numbers of children living in poverty.
Even some school district administrators are joining parents in saying, "enough is enough."
Grand Island , Hamburg and West Seneca have all passed resolutions in opposition to the current system of standardized assessments.
West Seneca's calls on the State Education Department to "...reconsider the present testing mandates and... make adjustments... that will be in concert with good teaching and learning."
"You may be able to bully school districts with ramifications or withholding state aid, but you cannot bully parents," Molly Dana warns State Ed. "You may have hushed the teachers for a while, but you haven't hushed parents."
We're told, all the time, that we don't have power. And the reality is, we do have power. We have power as citizens. And by the choices we make, we can affect real change," Verrico says. "I think it's a really important lesson, that we're telling [our children] that you don't have to just follow along, when you know something is wrong."
"It just needs to be thrown out, and start it over. It's not even just about, 'fair.' They are mentally harming our children. We need to let the teachers teach," says Beckwith. "We need, as parents,
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