Jolyn Safron, co-chair of the Kingston District Wide Parents Council, speaks at the forum. (Photo by Alen Fetahi)

Jolyn Safron, co-chair of the Kingston District Wide Parents Council, speaks at the forum. (Photo by Alen Fetahi)

Worry over and disapproval of the State Education Department’s high-stakes standardized tests has been simmering in Kingston, with some parents saying they’ve had enough and don’t want to subject their children to what they say is a stressful event and a destructive process. A member of the Kingston Board of Education bringing up the hypothetical possibility of parents keeping their kids home from school on days when the tests are given, as well as the ongoing problem of the tests giving, parents say, the Montessori-style George Washington Elementary School program a bad rap, has further brought the issue into local focus.

The District Wide Parents’ Council (DWPC), a group which according to its by-laws gives parents an opportunity to share ideas and concerns, as well as serving as a conduit between parents, school officials and the Board of Education, held a roundtable forum on this topic on Saturday, March 16 at Kingston’s City Hall. It was attended by more than 50 people, from both Kingston and the wider Mid-Hudson Region. Recently, the DWPC provided the Kingston school board with a resolution seeking changes in standardized testing, and they’ve also attempted to get local and state politicians involved.

The forum was initially planned to include a host of politicians, though scheduling conflicts changed the scope considerably. Assemblywoman Claudia Tenney and Congressman Chris Gibson each sent letters outlining their perspectives on the topic, and state Sen. Cecilia Tkaczyk had a representative in attendance taking notes to report back. Instead, the crowd broke into smaller discussion groups to identify concerns about standardized testing.

One of the primary concerns of the DWPC is one shared by Kingston City School District Superintendent Paul Padalino: Test results sometimes take over a year to be revealed.

“The data is not even back from a year ago, so now it’s almost two years old,” said Jolyn Safron, co-chair of the DWPC. “What good is this data going to be to improve our schools? In Kingston, the schools try to use it to make school improvement plans, but when it’s so old what benefit it is really? The kids have moved on.”

Boycott?

As part of the No Child Left Behind Act and other legislation to — its proponents insist — bring accountability to schools, the tests have become increasingly linked to how much funding a school gets and even in some cases if a school will remain open. Starting this school year, they’ll also be a part of the state’s new teacher evaluation program, raising the stakes even higher.

Kingston school board Trustee Robin Jacobowitz, who brought up the possibility of a boycott at a meeting earlier this month, holds a doctorate in education policy from New York University. In an interview this week, she said her primary concern isn’t with standardized testing in general, but rather the high-stakes testing, which she pointed out can lead to kids being taught to the test. “I think we lose some of the richness of our curriculum when this happens,” Jacobowitz said. “I do not think that assessments are inherently bad. Rather, I think that assessments, particularly formative assessments that can be used diagnostically, are an important tool for teaching and learning. And I think that accountability in public schools is important, so I understand the rationale behind a common assessment system that is used across [New York] schools.”

Jacobowitz agreed with the DWPC and Padalino that the results of the standardized tests are delivered too late and with too little useful information.

“Teachers receive their students’ results months after they take the test,” she said. “And even then, student performance is only reported by standard. Teachers cannot look at the test questions. This means that they cannot conduct an item analysis that would allow them to better understand their students’ performance and reflect on their own teaching practice. This, in my mind, severely dilutes the educational value of the test. There is little educational value in a testing system that does not allow for reflection on teaching and learning.”

At a meeting of the Board of Education earlier this month, Jacobowitz brought up the concept of a standardized testing boycott, where parents would keep their kids out of school on days the tests are meant to be administered. Jacobowitz later clarified that she was not actually advocating such a boycott.

“I did not suggest the possibility of a districtwide boycott of school on the days that mandatory standardized tests are administered,” she said. “What I wanted to do was to have a serious conversation, at the BOE level, about high-stakes testing.”

Such a boycott would actually be detrimental to the district, Padalino said, and might fail to get the point across.

“The big thing is that it puts us on more lists,” he said. “If we don’t meet the 95 percent participation on a test, it’s as if the students didn’t perform academically. We go into the same accountability system that we would go into if our students didn’t perform well. It’s a multi-step process, and it’s about more regulation as far as the state coming down and looking at what we’re doing, possibly to the point of telling us what we need to do in the classroom, removing local control over curriculum. And then down the line it could also affect funding. In the future it could actually endanger state aid.”

New evaluations

In Kingston and across the state, teachers and principals in public schools are being scrutinized under a new Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) that is, in part, determined by results of standardized tests given most commonly to students between third and eighth grade. The federal Race to the Top initiative, introduced nearly four years ago, also connects some of a district’s funding to mandatory standardized testing. And even though the redistricting plan Padalino moved closer to finalizing this week was designed to help Kingston consolidate the district and save some money, it doesn’t mean they don’t need the state and federal aid.

“Kingston relies on every single penny of its funding,” said Madeline Hoetger, co-chair of the DWPC.

Padalino agreed, adding that when the results do come back, there is very little tangible information the district can use to help shape the focus of its curriculum.

“That is one of the big concerns, and that’s something we’ve been saying to the State Education Department all along,” Padalino said. “If we’re going to use these tests to help inform instruction, which is the point, we need the results back in a timelier fashion and we need to be able to have an item analysis of all the test questions and where our students are not performing well. We will get a report back on standard-by-standard how our students are doing as a whole, but we don’t have that deep data analysis student-by-student, question-by-question that our teachers really need. And getting the data to us so we can use it in a timely fashion is the missing piece.”

Costs unlcear

While the district is in danger of losing aid both through poor testing performance or by an outright boycott, one of the other concerns about the cost of the standardized testing discussed at the DWPC forum was what it costs Kingston to actually comply with the mandate. Padalino this week said he didn’t have the actual dollar amount handy, but as with many federal and state mandates public school districts are faced with, this one is unfunded.

Kingston already has its own struggles with standardized testing, with some schools falling below expectations. Among those is George Washington Elementary, the district’s lone Montessori program. Over the past few years, George Washington has seen its educational offerings massaged to find a happy medium between the Montessori curriculum and the need to perform well on standardized tests.

“I think the people over at GW have done a good job of studying the common core, studying the new standards and seeing how they can mesh those two philosophies together,” Padalino said. “They understand that testing obviously isn’t the Montessori vision or mission, but they understand that they have to operate within the regulations that we have, and they have really retrofitted their program so that they’re delivering the common core standards and their students will be ready to take the assessments.”

Padalino said that while there are flaws in the system, students in New York have been subject to these kinds of tests for ages.