BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) - New York's standardized tests are just that -- standard, for all children who attend school in this state -- right?
Wrong, say a small but steadfast group of advocates.
While it is not widely-publicized, it's a fact that parents can choose to 'opt out,' and not have their kids take the tests. And this idea of refusing to take the tests is beginning to gain steam, with parents and teachers who feel the tests are doing more harm than good.
Saturday, they held a public forum at Buffalo's Niagara Branch Library to inform other parents of 'opt-out' right, what its consequences are, and how to exercise it, if they so choose.
Bob Mahany has three children, two in high school and one in 5th grade. He's also a high school social studies teacher. "Standardized tests are a good idea, to a point. It's excessive, that's where we are right now. It's excessive use of standardized tests," Mahany says.
Lisa Mihelbergal, also a parent who teaches art to Kindergarten through 5th graders, agrees. "It's gone very, very extreme towards data and at the expense of students' learning [and] our teaching... Anything that's really meaningful," says Mihelbergel.
Talk to teachers in any school district, she says, and they will tell you the same thing -- children are being done a disservice.
Increasingly, school days are consumed by test prep and test-taking rather than creative projects, and one-on-one instruction that helps kids develop critical thinking skills.
"Teachers are now beginning to have to care about points, that don't have to do with anything that's of value, really, for the child and their education. Your time should be focused completely on those children, spending the time with them and teaching them," Mihelbergel says. "Real education, it's the relationship that you build with your children and what they're really capable of doing.
Last year, Mahany was the first parent in his children's district to choose opting out. At first, he says, it got he and his kids a lot of sideways glances and even some pushback. But now, slowly, the idea is starting to take hold a bit more.
"It's wrong for the kids. The more teachers test, the less they teach," Mahany explains. "It's a sin, what it's doing to the children. I feel bad for my kids; I feel bad for my students. Is it fair to give them a pre-test in September, on something they haven't covered before?"
Students are stressed out -- and so are their teachers.
Many educators now feel like they're simply "teaching to the test" instead of truly helping children.
New York's new teacher evaluation system, where teachers' performance can be judged based solely on standardized test scores, adds further pressure.
"What if I'm teaching and I have all the honors students, and the teacher across the hall has students with special needs? Or students who read at less than grade level? How are we going to draw a comparison between those two teachers?" Mahany asks.
"And I should add, we've always been evaluated. We're fine with that. We want to become better," says Mahany. "But putting a number on a test score of a student, and attaching it to my teaching ability? You don't know what that student is going through at home. You don't know what their home life is. New York State has been pretending that socio-economics [are] not a factor in the test scores. And that's the foundation of the mistake. Why is it the affluent districts, each year... have the best test scores? And the City of Buffalo is beaten down, and told each year, they're doing a poor job. Do you think poverty is an issue? Crime? ...Other family issues, do you think that adversely affects their scores? Sure it does."
Mihelbergel said, "My principal is coming through my school all the time. She's always walking in the classroom and seeing what's going on, talking to the children. That's real knowledge of how a teacher teaches."
Advocates point out, state standardized tests don't count toward a child's average; they don't measure whether a child needs extra help in reading or math; and they are not a requirement for graduation or advancing to the next grade level.
And, according to the group, contrary to what some education officials will say, opting out will not cost a school district its funding.
Several students also made their voices heard at the forum. One fifth-grade girl told the room, "Kids don't need to learn how to take a test. If all they learn is how to take a test then they are going to think there is only one answer to everything."
The group, Western New Yorkers for Public Education, is planning to take its banner up in Washington next month. Members are planning to stage a demonstration at the U.S. Department of Education in the District of Columbia from April 4 to 10.
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