Testing deposit

As students are set to take standardized assessments across the state next week, the president of the Port Byron Teachers Association is criticizing her district for a plan to get more students to take the tests.

The district, which had the second highest opt-out rate out of the nine Cayuga-Onondaga BOCES component districts last year, is allowing junior high students who take the tests to be exempt from finals at the end of the year. At the elementary level, the plan is to have students who opt out of the state tests take an alternative test.

In a March 8 newsletter from the Port Byron Central School District, Mike Jorgensen, principal of the district's Dana L. West Junior-Senior High School, addressed the annual state math and English language arts assessments for eligible third-grade through eighth-grade students.

"This year, all junior high school students who participate, with effort, on the NYS ELA, Math, and Science (eighth grade only) will be exempt from taking their local final exams (ELA, Math, Science, and Social Studies)," the newsletter said. "Their performance on the state assessment will not impact their overall grade in a class. Their final quarter average will be based on the same types of assignments they were graded on during the first three marking periods."

A March 22 newsletter also talked about the tests, saying the tests allow for indicating how well students are "mastering the learning standards that guide classroom instruction" in the district's elementary school.

"Since student data is so important to the work we do, we need everyone to take the assessments in order to get a clear picture of how A.A. Gates students are progressing. Students typically take these assessments on the computer, but any student not taking the computer-based version will be given an alternative paper-based assessment asking similar questions," the newsletter said.

In 2018, 31.7 percent of Port Byron students opted out of the math exam and 34.7 percent refused to take the ELA portion. One of the leading advocates for opting out of the tests in the district has been Angelee Hitchcock, the president of the Port Byron teachers union and a physical education teacher at Dana L. West.

In an interview this week, Hitchcock said she feels the district's actions to get more students tested punish students whose parents have opted them out of the tests in the past. In years past, students who didn't take the tests simply sat and read, Hitchcock said.

Hitchcock, who said her feelings are not representative of the district and has been opting her son in the district out of the tests for years, said she believes the junior high school's method bribes students into taking the assessments. She said she believes refusal rates will go down in Port Byron this year, with the option to be exempt from finals "being so palatable" to students. She also said the alternative test for elementary students dismisses parents' wishes.

As a parent, Hitchcock said she believes the state assessments are harmful to students and are detrimental to schools of poverty, special education students and students of colors.

"My assertion for the tests is that if the tests aren't good for one child, they're not good for any child," she said.

Hitchcock said she believe regulations from the state pushing for districts to get more students tested "have backed districts into a corner and districts have come out swinging. But the problem is, parents' rights usurp all of that."

She said the tests put Port Byron in a difficult situation, but doesn't agree with how the district is handling the tests.

Port Byron Superintendent Neil O'Brien said he is aware of other Cayuga County-area schools holding the alternative tests. He declined to say if parents could opt out of the alternative tests.

"The changes in the high school came from meetings with the teachers on how to increase student participation in state assessments," O'Brien said.

State Education Department officials said districts are within their rights to offer exemptions to finals and arrange alternative tests.

"Districts have local discretion on whether they provide students who do not take the Grades 3-8 ELA and math assessments with an alternate location and/or an alternate activity as well as what requirements are needed at the local level to pass a non-Regents course," the agency said in a statement to The Citizen.

The agency also emphasized the importance of the tests and the changes that have been made to them.

"Over the past four years, Commissioner Elia and the Board of Regents have listened to the concerns of parents and teachers and made significant changes to the exams as a result. Starting last year, both the ELA and Mathematics testing sessions were reduced to only two sessions each, resulting in substantially fewer questions than in prior years. For the fourth year in a row the tests will be untimed and we will release 75 percent of the test questions. Teachers from across the state serve on committees to write, select and evaluate the questions for the tests.  ... It's up to parents to decide if their children should take the tests, and we want them to have the all the facts so they can make an informed decision," the agency said.

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Staff writer Kelly Rocheleau can be reached at (315) 282-2243 or kelly.rocheleau@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @KellyRocheleau.