‘Opt out’ option for state testing?

Last modified: 3/26/2015 9:24:31 AM
Multiple Mascenic School District parents are up in arms about the prospect of statewide assessment testing happening at the district’s three schools this month and next, with some seeking ways to exempt their children from the process. They’re also speaking out against what some parents say is a disciplinary action against a middle school teacher who was allegedly advising students that it was possible to opt out of the exam process.

Boynton art teacher Anthony Chirichella has not been in school since Monday. District officials have not commented on Chirichella’s status, however, several parents said his absence came directly after their children brought home opt-out forms, which were available in Chirichella’s classroom. The forms, though not sanctioned by state or school, gave parents the option to refuse to have their child participate in the standardized Smarter Balanced Assessment. Shortly after Chirichella made the forms available, parents said, his class was taken over by a substitute, and the district sent home a letter to parents stating definitively that the district has no authority to allow parents to opt out of the standardized test.

“We are well aware that there is a nationwide and local controversy regarding these new assessments, and respect varying beliefs and opinions;” wrote Supt. Ruthann Goguen in the letter sent to parents, “but please be advised at this time, both federal and state laws require all students to participate in statewide assessments. Our district has no authority to permit parents to ‘opt-out’ of the statewide assessments on behalf of their children.”

Boynton Middle School Principal Thomas Starrett declined to comment on the matter, saying he cannot not disclose the employment status of any employee.

School Board Chair Richard Wallace also declined to comment, citing it is a personnel matter, and stated that the board had not had any conversation concerning the administrative leave or suspension of an employee. He directed questions to the superintendent.

District Supt. Goguen did not return requests for comment left at the SAU office on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

When contacted, Chirichella declined to comment on the recommendation of his representation.

Parents protest

Meanwhile, multiple parents are protesting the district’s stance on requiring students to participate in testing, with at least one going as far as pulling her student out of school during testing hours to ensure that she isn’t included in the testing process.

Megan Rogers of New Ipswich said she had sent several emails to the district last week, informing them that she did not want her elementary-aged daughter to participate in the test. Her daughter only enrolled in the public school a few months ago after a long period of home schooling, said Rogers, and she doesn’t feel a long testing period, coming so shortly after assessments taken to assess her daughter’s grade level, is either necessary or good for her child.

“I’m not going to put my kid through that,” said Rogers. After being told that the district does not have a choice in administering the test, Rogers asked for the testing times and picked up her daughter before the test was administered and dropped her off when it was done.

Several other New Ipswich parents have also voiced their intention to ensure that their child is not included in the testing.

Jennifer Sikkila of New Ipswich, too, said she had concerns about the amount of testing that is happening, saying, “My daughter is tested out. She gets test anxiety and she despises it.”

Nina Dilger of New Ipswich said she also objected to the testing, especially as there seemed to be no clear plan for implementation of changes to the district based on the results.

New Ipswich resident Barbara Somero said she was upset at what she believed to be administrative action against Chirichella. Her daughter, a student of Chirichella’s, loves his class and him as a teacher, she said.

Somero and Dilger spent Wednesday morning in front of the Boynton Middle School with signs in support of “Mr. C” and against the Smarter Balanced testing. The group of parents also plans to attend the School Board meeting tonight to bring their concerns to the board; they are also discussing hiring a lawyer to contest whether or not parents have the right to refuse state assessment testing for their children.

Can parents opt out?

According to Heather Gage, the N.H. Department of Education director of the Division of Educational Improvement, districts are required to give the Smarter Balanced test — the successor to NECAP — and by state and federal law all students are required to take them. However, she added, it is also true that the law does not create any penalties for students that do not take the test.

That does not mean there are no consequences, though, if the district does not have significant amounts of participation — with at least 95 percent being the goal. With Smarter Balanced testing being new in the state, said Gage, the DOE expects that participation will be lower than that goal this year, as it often is when a new test is implemented. “We’d almost have to be dreaming to anticipate the same or better participation,” said Gage. But New Hampshire has traditionally had very high participation under other statewide assessments, said Gage, and a low turnout from a district would at the very least generate discussion between the district and the DOE, and at most could lead to the loss of federal funding. Though, Gage said, the loss of funding “isn’t even a discussion” this year for poor turnouts. She also said that it is left up to individual districts how they wish to handle parents and students that categorically refuse testing.

“Our expectation is that all kids will participate,” said Gage, “but it’s up to local discretion what to do if a parent refuses.”

In Manchester, nearly 200 parents requested and were granted the opportunity to refuse Smarter Balanced testing for their children, after the district sent out letters indicating they had the right to do so.

Gage said the DOE is very aware that there is some controversy surrounding assessment tests and the larger issue of the Common Core and education standards, and said there is some misinformation that is being spread about what the test contains.

One such concern, that the test might include questions of a personal or philosophical nature, is troublesome to some parents, including Somero, who worries that the test steps on families’ private and personal lives.

Gage categorically denied that the test asks such questions, saying she has heard those rumors and that there is no basis for them. “It’s all academic,” stressed Gage. “It’s not, ‘How many guns do you have in your house,’ or ‘What do you think on gay marriage.’ We would have to be crazy to put that on a state assessment.”

Ellen Salmonson, a social studies teacher at Mascenic who will be proctoring the exam when 11th-graders take it next month, agreed with that statement, saying, “There are no psychological questions on the test. People need to calm down about that. It’s very skill-based.”

Salmonson said that, while no teacher likes the idea of giving up classroom time in favor of standardized tests, they have become a reality of the education system, and something that educators have learned to deal with and work around.


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