SARANAC LAKE - When Saranac Lake elementary and middle school students sit down on Tuesday for the first of six days of state standardized tests, they may notice a few empty seats in the room.
That's because at least 25 students in grades three to eight will boycott the state English and math tests, according to Zoe Smith of the Saranac Lake Parent Faculty Education Alliance, a newly formed, district-wide parent-teacher group.
Smith, who lives in Saranac Lake, is one of many local parents who have decided to opt their kids out of this year's tests because they are frustrated with the state's reliance on standardized testing. She has two kids in the district, Ruby, a third-grader, and Griffin, who's in fifth grade.
Saranac Lake Middle School students take the state standardized English language arts test in April 2012 in the school’s gymnasium. Students in third through eighth grades across the state will take the first of three days of ELA exams next week.
(Enterprise file photo — Chris Knight)
"I feel like it's sort of sucking the love of learning out of my kids," Smith told the Enterprise Thursday. "I see that with their teachers, too. A lot of teachers are losing, sort of, that love of teaching. I think it's creating this sour environment in our classrooms."
Another local parent, Vanessa Houghtlin of Saranac Lake, said her kids also won't take the tests. She has a fifth-grader, Sylvie Linck, and an eighth-grader, Elodie Linck.
"We feel there's an over-reliance on state testing in the schools that's damaging the quality of the eduction there, demoralizing a lot of the teachers and children, and undermining the high-level teaching and learning we think are important for children and our whole culture," Houghtlin said.
Smith and Houghtlin aren't the only people with these concerns. At it's meeting Wednesday night, the Saranac Lake school board passed a resolution against high-stakes standardized testing.
The decision by local parents to opt their kids out of the tests comes in the wake of a school testing forum hosted by the Petrova Parents Club in late February. The event drew a group of about 80 parents, teachers and school administrators, many of whom shared their concern over the growing use of standardized tests and the effectiveness of New York state's tests.
After the forum, Smith said she and other parents contacted Saranac Lake school officials to ask what would happen if their children refused to take the tests on their own.
"They aren't really permitted to refuse, themselves; it's a disciplinary thing," Smith said. "If the child were to go and refuse the test, the parent would be required to come and pick that child up. The compromise really is for us to bring our children in late at the end of the testing period for those days, which is 11 o'clock for elementary and 10 o'clock for middle school, and to write a note to the district beforehand letting them know that we're refusing to allow our children to take the tests, and they'll be coming in late on these days."
Smith said the goal is to get the state Education Department to re-examine its testing policies and come up with a better solution.
"I think the only way they're going to take a step back is for parents like us to come forward and say, 'We're not happy with this,'" Smith said.
Houghtlin said she's not just concerned about the impact of state testing on her children. She's concerned about the extent of the district's curriculum that's driven by testing, and the fact that teachers are now being evaluated - and, therefore, paid - based in part on their students' test scores.
"I see it as a way to stand up for the teachers who can't teach using their own creativity and their own gifts, and to stand up for the kind of learning that is inhibited by this over-reliance on tests," she said. "It's about using the power I have as a parent to try and influence some change."
What do her kids think about not having to take the tests?
"My younger daughter was like, 'Cool,'" Houghtlin said. "(For) my older daughter it took a little longer to make the decision. She wondered if her friends would give her a hard time about it. She has decided she's comfortable with it, and she's talked to a couple peers who are also doing it, and that helps."
The English language arts tests for grades three to eight will take place Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of next week. Math assessments for students in the same grades are scheduled for April 24 to 26. Each test takes about 90 minutes to complete, so that adds up to roughly nine hours of testing per student over the two weeks.
What will the kids who've opted out do instead? Smith and Houghtlin said their children plan to use the time constructively, with the older kids writing letters to school officials, state lawmakers and the state education commissioner, and their younger children working on art, writing or other projects.
"It's not a day to stay home and play video games," Smith said.
Support and concern
Petrova Elementary Principal Josh Dann said he's received seven or eight letters from parents opting their kids out of the tests. He expects he'll have 25 to 30 by early next week.
"I'm trying to be supportive," he said. "They're the parents. They have to decide what's best for their kids. As a principal, you want to have everyone do what is expected by the state, but we're in a time where people have a lot of valid points about why they're not taking (the tests), and I agree with most of them."
Still, Dann has concerns. He said most of the kids opting out are strong students.
"Our test data is going to look a little different, obviously," he said. "A lot of people moving into the village look at that data to see how effective our schools are, and that worries me a bit."
If the school's test participation rate falls below 95 percent for two years in a row, it could lose aid from the state, but Dann said it's too early to know how that will play out.
Next week's tests will be the first ones aligned with new national Common Core standards in math and English. They're expected to be more challenging. Event state education officials have admitted they expect as much as a 30 percent drop in test scores.
At the testing forum in late February, some local teachers and principals said they haven't had enough time, less than a year, to implement the new Common Core standards.
"If there's a fall-off in scores, it's not necessarily that our children are failing or our teachers are failing our students," said Bloomingdale Elementary School Principal Theresa Lindsay. "It has to do with a timeline that really isn't right." She said a three-year phase-in would have been better.
New York State United Teachers Union spokesman Carl Korn said the state Education Department hasn't provided teachers with all the lesson modules they need to prepare their students for the tests.
"What's going to be happening next week is students will be tested based on material they have not yet been taught," Korn said Thursday. "No teacher would ever test their students if they haven't prepared them yet, and that's exactly the scenario the state is pushing teachers into beginning next week."
The resolution the school board passed says the the over-emphasis on standardized testing has caused "considerable collateral damage in too many schools, including narrowing the curriculum, teaching to the test, reducing love of learning, pushing students out of school, driving excellent teachers out of the profession, and undermining school climate."
The board approved the resolution unanimously and with little discussion.
"This does not mean we're not going to give the tests next week; We have to by law," said board member Clyde Baker. "It's putting our support behind saying there is too much testing."
The Parent Faculty Education Alliance had asked the board to endorse the resolution, similar versions of which have been adopted by other school districts around the state and the country.