Parents, legislators concerned with test fatigue

House Bill 50 would let students opt out
April 28, 2015

State tests are underway across the state, but some parents don't want their children tested.

A group of Delaware parents, officials and legislators are joining others nationwide who say they've had enough of state and national testing.

House Bill 50, sponsored by Rep. John Kowalko, D-Newark South, and Sen. David Lawson, R-Kenton, would amend Delaware code to allow parents the right to opt out their children from statewide assessments.

Although current code allows a parent to opt out a child with a doctor's note, Kowalko said the bill removes that burden and solidifies parental rights.

“It's merely a sincere attempt to clarify in state law that parents have the right to opt-out their students,” he said.

Under state law, 95 percent of the student population is required to take the state test and, if not, there is the potential of losing up to $90 million in federal funding, said Education Secretary Mark Murphy during a House education committee hearing April 22 held in Dover.

To date, no state has lost funding because of the opt out movement – a movement that has grown in neighboring states. Rep. Kim Williams, D-Wilmington, said 50,000 parents in New Jersey have excused their children from testing, and New York state has dropped below 95 percent of students tested.

Testimony was tense at times as House Education Committee Chairman Rep. Earl Jacques, D-Glasgow, questioned where the line should be drawn regarding parental rights.

“The government has no right to dictate to us the best interests of children,” Kowalko said.

When Jacques asked how the state will assess student learning if too many students opt out, Kowalko said, “Nobody can show you Smarter Balanced as an assessment because it hasn't happened.”

Some Wilmington legislators were concerned about inner-city parents not understanding the opt-out issue. Reading a letter from Wilmington activist Jea Street, Rep. Stephanie Bolden, D-Wilmington East, said the bill could allow for mischief from low-performing school districts that could discourage low-income students from taking the test.

“Low scores could be miraculously improved,” she read from the letter.

Upstate parent Connie Merlet countered by asserting informed parents still have rights.

“What I'm hearing is because there are uninformed parents, then informed parents shouldn't have this right,” she said.

Parents, parent-based groups and education organizations packed House chambers, many in support of the bill.

Rehoboth Beach resident Nelia Dolan supports the bill because, she says, tests are used to label and punish schools that have high concentrations of impoverished and special needs children.

Dolan said she took a sample Smarter Balanced test for third-graders and she found it confusing.

“We support grade span standardized tests that measure what children have learned,” she said. “Not the poorly written SBA that in my opinion seems to be measuring developmentally inappropriate cleverness.”

Dolan said there are many questions that ask a student to choose the best of several correct answers. “This will only confuse even the most advanced 8-year-old. Totally inappropriate,” she said.

The cost for state testing is also an issue, Dolan said.

Delaware Department of Education spokesman Susan Keene Haberstroh said the total cost for testing, which includes Smarter Balanced and DCAS, is about $4.4 million. Smarter Balanced alone is about half of the total, she said.

Another $665,635 went for optional Smarter Balanced interim assessments and teacher resources, she said.

As for costs next year, Haberstroh said, Delaware officials have signed a memorandum of understanding with Smarter Balanced and American Institutes for Research, the company that delivers and processes the tests. “This cost would be similar for next year,” she said.

As written, HB 50 gives parents the right to excuse their children from taking the tests by giving at least two days notice. The bill states no academic or disciplinary repercussions shall be placed on a student's record for not taking the test.

The bill also states the Department of Education shall report opt-out numbers in accountability ratings “to provide context and impact on school and district ratings; however, the opt-out numbers shall not factor into the accountability ratings.”

The Delaware State Education Association and Delaware Parent Teacher Association both support a parent's right to excuse their child from taking the test.

“The over emphasis on standardized testing has caused considerable collateral damage in too many schools,” said Frederika Jenner, president of the DSEA. “It is narrowing curriculums, fostering a teach-to-the-test approach, reducing love of learning, driving excellent teachers out of the profession and undermining school climate.”

The focus on test scores for English and math has been detrimental to subjects that are not included in a school's accountability, Jenner said.

“There has been an overabundance of attention placed on those two subjects,” she said.

Test results from English and math are used by state and federal education officials who compile the results on a school and district basis. Graphs and charts ultimately map out whether students are meeting education goals and illustrate achievement gaps among races, ethnicities and socioeconomic groups.

Jenner said she is not against testing or collecting data as long as there are no punitive measures for schools.

“If this process is just being used to rank and rate kids, teachers and administrators, and to label schools, I have a problem with that,” she said.

Decades of tests under a variety of names have been given to Delaware students, and officials have been collecting data for years, she said, adding, “I'm not so sure the results have actually improved learning or teaching.”

Delaware moved to create its own test in the 1990s, the Delaware Student Testing Program. DSTP was later replaced a few years later with a computerized test known as the Delaware Comprehensive Assessment System.

Wilmington teacher Michael Matthews said 15 years of testing students have produced no gains.

“We have engaged in high-stakes testing and have seen no benefits,” he said. “We've had three tests in five years.”

The frequency of the testing is too much, said Rep. Sean Matthews, D-Talleyville. “We're the only nation that tests every child, every year.”

Rep. Paul Baumbach, D-Newark, questioned the true intent of the test.

“Is the test serving the student or is the test serving the state?” he asked. “This test is designed to serve the state and federal government.”

Terri Hodges, president of Delaware PTA, said 6,000 members voted in support of HB 50, the test opt-out bill.

“This bill will help eliminate the current culture of fear and intimidation that some districts have created under the direction of the Delaware Department of Education,” she said.

Committee members released HB 50 from committee by the minimum eight votes needed. The bill is not yet on the House agenda.

The opt-out option

Murphy said district and school leaders are handling opt-out requests as they arise.

“They are handled on a local level,” he said.

Upstate parent David Brenton said he was told by his children's New Castle County school district that he is breaking the law by excusing his children from state tests. Other parents shared similar stories.

Rep. Williams said her 11th-grade son opted out because of the number of tests he has scheduled in the final weeks of school. She read off a list of about a dozen tests in addition to the state tests that he is required to take.

In March, Gov. Jack Markell acknowledged that today's students are faced with too many tests. He has since asked districts to assess the number of tests they give students and reevaluate them. Cape Henlopen Supervisor of Elementary Education Donna Kolakowski said Cape is reviewing the tests, but many are state mandated.

“We would be happy to eliminate some tests, but it's not really Cape putting on the extra burden,” she said.

DOE's Haberstroh said state and federal law require testing in science in addition to the English and math assessments. Social studies is also tested because, she said, students, parents and teachers should have information on what they are learning.

“As we move forward, we are looking to ensure all assessments provided to our students are relevant, high quality and not redundant,” Haberstroh said.

Markell's education advisor Lindsay O'Mara said they expect an inventory of tests from school districts by June.

In Brandywine School District, Superintendent Mark Holodick said 30 parents have requested to excuse their children from state testing. He said he agrees students take too many tests.

“We are over-assessing children,” he said. “The length of the test is too long.”

In Cape Henlopen School District, Kolakowski said Cape has received two requests from parents who don't want their child to take the upcoming Smarter Balanced test. She said Cape sent letters to the parents stressing the importance of the state tests, but there are no repercussions for a parent or child if they opt out.

School board member Jen Burton said no one has approached the board about not taking state tests. She said she supports a parent's right to opt out, but parents need to step forward if they want action.

“It starts with the parents,” Burton said.

Smarter Balanced testing

Cape Henlopen School District gave students interim tests in January and February to prepare for the Smarter Balanced assessment. Kolakowski said administrators worked out some technical glitches during the dry run; Cape students are using all available computers to take the test, including school-issued iPads at the high school and laptops, she said. During the interim tests, Kolakowski said, district officials realized not all keyboards for the iPads were compatible with the test, but the appropriate keyboards were obtained.

Coordinating with the Smarter Balanced system was beneficial, too, she said.

“Sometimes it shut down, and they would have to reboot it,” she said.

Official Smarter Balanced testing for English and math will be held at the end of April for grades 3-8 and 11. Students will also be tested on science and social studies by using the DCAS.

Testing time for Smarter Balanced tests is longer than the DCAS because the new test requires writing and showing work for math problems, Kolakowski said.

The English section includes writing, a test area that was eliminated when the state replaced the DSTP with DCAS. The math performance part will be along the lines of an old-fashioned word problem, but with some teacher instruction beforehand, Jenner said.

“The tests are pretty lengthy, longer because of the performance piece,” Kolakowski said.

There is no time limit for the tests; Kolakowski said students complete a battery of questions on one day and the next day will complete the performance task for the Smarter Balanced tests.


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