EDITORIAL: Here’s a test for test makers

SOME STUDENTS KNOW HOW to take multiple choice tests. Some don’t. It helps if you study, but that  doesn’t explain why certain kids knew the right answer immediately while others who thought long and hard got it wrong. I resented classmates who effortlessly filled in their answer sheet ovals as I agonized over what the test maker wanted from me.

New York has required exams for roughly a century and a half, and once set the national standard against which all other tests were measured. This state led efforts to use testing as a tool for improving education well before No Child Left Behind became the law of the land early this century. Test data can provide educators with insight about who’s learning what where. Tests confirmed that children from impoverished communities do not perform as well as their peers in schools with more resources. The testing also reveals clues about what parts of individual public school districts need the most attention, regardless of taxpayers’ wealth. The data become ever more convincing when testing follows students throughout their years in school. But all this testing has taken a toll on some students and their families, including some here in Columbia County. And now a few of those families have adopted a new form of protest.

We first reported this in our April 11 edition toward the end of a story on a meeting of the Ichabod Crane school board, which concentrated on the board’s budget proposal. Schools Superintendent George Zini told the board that evening that some students had “opted out” of the standardized tests. That didn’t sound like too big a deal except that, as Mr. Zini said at the time, New York State does not permit students to refuse to take a test.

Mr. Zini is right about that as far as the state Education Department is concerned, and the state’s position is backed up by legal guidance offered by the New York State Association of School Attorneys. In a January memo an official with the Education Department said “there is no provision in statute or regulation allowing parents to opt their children out of State tests” except in situations where the child has a disability. The memo cites the testing requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act.

What’s the penalty if your kid doesn’t take the test? It sounds as if the state envisions a form of collective punishment. Once a school district falls below a level of 95% participation in standardized testing, the state may reduce funding for the whole district. In other words the state, acting on behalf of the federal government, could hold the district responsible for the actions of parents and students, even though there apparently are no specific enforcement powers in the regulations.
The school can’t make a student take a test if the student skips class on test days, cowering under the covers at home with a bad case of test-taker heebie-jeebies. But a school could decide not to promote a refuse-nik student to the next grade level. Yet that too risks penalizing the district, because if enough students don’t take the test the district looks like it’s underperforming in terms of student promotions.
To fix the problems described above, the best approach is to:
A. Ignore it and hope it goes away
B. Threaten to arrest “opt-out” students and their parents, physically forcing kids to take the tests
C. Dissolve the Education Department
D. Look for ways to reduce testing stress levels
“All of the above” is not one of the options, nor does the list include an approach that some states have tried: making it legal for students to opt out of taking the standardized tests. That solution would invite abuse and skew data on school performance, once again harming the whole district.
Testing is an essential part of public education; it cannot and should not go away for high school students. School requirements can be stressful. So is life beyond school.
The primary and middle grades are a different matter. That’s the place where state lawmakers and the Education Department have an obligation to address the concerns of parents and teachers who believe the tests themselves and the necessity to teach to the test serve neither students nor the taxpayers who pay to educate them. In this age of big data surely smart educational leaders can find less stressful more effective ways of measuring the performance of young learners.

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