Standardized tests are coming. Two school districts have bold plans to make them optional

Gary Stern
Rockland/Westchester Journal News

At a time when many school districts are peeved that they are being forced by Washington to administer standardized tests, the Ossining and Rye districts are taking the provocative step of only giving the tests to students whose parents request it.

This "opting in" approach may mean that few students will take the state-run tests for grades 3-8, which are scheduled for April, May and June. But that's fine with Ossining officials, who say the tests will be unacceptably disruptive during the pandemic and will yield little meaningful data.

"We're in a pandemic, and there is a lot our students are going through right now, and our staff," Ossining Superintendent Ray Sanchez said. "We're fulfilling the requirements to administer the assessments, and we're giving parents a voice in the process."

Teaching assistant Jalay Knowles takes the temperature of fifth-graders, part of the morning health screening, as students arrive at Roosevelt Elementary School Oct. 1, 2020 in Ossining.

Sanchez said his district is considering take the same step with four Regents exams that the state is offering this spring to comply with federal requirements.

The Rye school district is also going to offer the tests only to students whose parents choose to have them participate. Rye Superintendent Eric Byrne wrote in a letter to parents this week that the district believes it is "inappropriate" for schools to be required to give exams during the pandemic.

His letter noted that the state had announced that "test results will not be utilized for any purpose, including academic support, promotion or retention, or teacher evaluations. Local school assessments will be used to determine the academic support needs of our students."

The U.S. Education Department has said it will not allow states to cancel standardized tests that meet federal requirements, which it did allow last year after the pandemic hit. Federal officials have said the tests are necessary to measure "learning loss" related to the pandemic, but can be condensed and do not have to be used to evaluate students or schools.

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School officials across the Hudson Valley have made no secret of their displeasure over having to administer the tests for grades 3-8 in math, ELA and science, particularly at a point when many districts are bringing large numbers of students back to school on a more regular basis. 

"To say hello, here's a test, is not the most welcoming approach," Sanchez said.

It wasn't clear Thursday how many other districts in the region are considering an "opt in" approach. Most districts are communicating to parents that it's their prerogative whether their children take the tests, said Joe Ricca, president of the Lower Hudson Council of School Superintendents, which includes school chiefs in Westchester, Rockland, Putnam and Dutchess counties.

"We want parents/guardians to know that the tests do not count and students need not sit for them if their parent/guardian chooses," Ricca said.

On Friday, the New Rochelle school district sent a notice to parents announcing a similar approach.

Ossining Schools Superintendent Ray Sanchez

The Ossining, Rye and New Rochelle districts each sent memos to parents with dates by which they need to confirm that their children will take the tests.

"While we are required by Federal regulations to administer this year’s state assessments, we believe that doing so is disruptive and misguided under the current pandemic circumstances," Ossining's memo said.

The state Education Department, in a statement to The Journal News/lohud, said that Ossining had made officials aware of its plan. The statement did not indicate whether state officials approve of the plan.

State still hopes to cancel

The state Board of Regents has requested permission from the federal government to cancel this year's tests. But the Biden administration has insisted that the tests go on, while allowing that they can be condensed and administered later in the spring and do not have to be used to evaluate students, teachers or schools.

The state Education Department recently decided that students will take one session of the 3-8 tests, instead of the normal two. The tests have to be taken in school only, so students who are doing all-remote learning won't take them.

The state is offering only four Regents exams this spring, all to comply with federal requirements. But students must only pass their courses, and not the tests, to get credit toward a Regents diploma.

State Education Commissioner Betty Rosa said March 15 said she still hopes the federal government will allow New York to cancel all standardized tests. She said she has been collecting information about how districts assess their students to help build her case with the feds.

Ossining Board of Education President Lisa Rudley said many are disappointed in the federal decision to further disturb a difficult school year.

"We are concerned about the well being of our students," she said. "This has been a very disruptive year, and it's a difficult time with kids coming back to school."

Lisa Rudley is an Ossining parent and a founder of New York State Allies for Public Education.

Rudley is a founding member of New York State Allies for Public Education, an advocacy group that led the charge during the mid-2010s for parents to opt out of the state's tests for grades 3-8, amid concern that "high stakes" testing was being overemphasized in New York.

"Historically the data that comes from these tests have not helped inform instruction the way our local assessments do or the work our teachers do with our students," Rudley said.

On Wednesday, new U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said on MSNBC that test results are needed to help make spending decisions regarding $130 billion in K-12 aid that's included in the federal American Rescue Plan. "That state level data will ensure that we are providing the funds to those students impacted the most by the pandemic," he said.

Since this year's tests will not be used to evaluate students, many expect that large numbers of parents will choose on their own to have their children skip the tests.

"I don't think a lot of kids are going to take these tests," Sanchez said.

The testing schedule is: ELA tests for grades 3-8, April 19-29; math tests for 3-8, May 3-14; science tests for grade 4 and 8, June 7-11.

Next year's tests

Coincidentally, the state Education Department announced Wednesday that it had selected a vendor, Questar Assessment, Inc. from among five bids to create new standardized tests for grades 3-8. The $72 million, five-year contract has to be approved by the state attorney general and comptroller's offices.

Questar is to produce new tests to first be administered in spring of 2022, state officials said.

"While the Board [of Regents] has approved administering a shortened assessment for this unique pandemic-affected year if the U.S. Department of Education denies our waiver request, we must be prepared to continue the development of consistently fair, high-quality assessments for the future," Regents Chancellor Lester Young said in a statement.

It remains to be seen how much state officials will emphasize the tests moving forward.

During the national rollout of testing-based "reforms" during the mid-2010s, then-Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch and then-Education Commissioner John King were leading proponents of using test scores to assess not only students, but teachers and schools. King's successor, MaryEllen Elia, was also a big believer in the tests, and prodded school districts to sell the tests to parents and discourage opt-outs.

Rosa has been more skeptical about the tests, and Young is new to the chancellor's seat. So it may be some time before they clarify their positions on the value of the tests or parents' freedom to opt out.