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Parents speak about opting out and opting in for Common Core tests

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WATERTOWN — Last year Amanda N. DesJardins watched her son stress out about the Common Core standardized tests in the same way some people dread a root canal.

“He was completely stressed last year to the point he cried, couldn’t sleep, had an upset stomach and couldn’t eat,” Mrs. DesJardins said. “He is a bit of an overachiever and really tried hard to do well, which just stressed him out.”

This year, she made the decision many other parents across New York made, to have her child refuse to take the test. She said the reason parents had their children refrain from participating in the state-mandated Common Core tests varies from family to family.

According to the state Education Department, there is no “opt-out” clause for the mandated assessment tests; students who do not take the test are classified as refusals. Education Department spokesman Jonathan D. Burman said no official opt-out numbers are available, but a report by the Buffalo News said unofficially more than 30,000 New York state students, with the permission of their parents, abstained from taking the test.

“I am against the Common Core curriculum as many of the states within the nation aren’t doing this,” Jacqueline A. Frechette said. “I felt that this was a personal and private matter that each family should decide for themselves without any influence.”

Mrs. Frechette, whose son is a sixth-grader at Immaculate Heart Central School, said she decided to have him opt out of taking the tests.

“I felt it was an unfair measurement of all children and teachers capabilities,” Mrs. Frechette said. “I also felt it was a waste of school hours to be taking these tests and losing precious learning time in the classroom.”

The Common Core assessments were administered statewide for the English language arts and math beginning April 1. Within the next two years, additional tests for science and social studies will be implemented.

Peter S. Brouwer, dean of education and professional studies at SUNY Potsdam, said that as an academic professional he can see the value of the modules, but the hasty implementation of the tests put too much emphasis on testing rather than education.

“The problem, in my opinion, is there was a rush to implement. Kids in grades three to eight haven’t had the adequate foundation to be tested on this material,” Mr. Brouwer said. “It should have been phased in over time.”

Mrs. DesJardins said she has three children attending General Brown Central School, in first, fifth and eighth grades. In their family, one of her two children old enough for the tests opted out while the other decided to take the test.

“We intended to opt both of the older boys out, but the oldest was afraid of the repercussions of not taking the tests and chose to participate,” Mrs. DesJardins said.

She said her son told her he didn’t want to stand out from his classmates by refusing to take the test.

“I didn’t want him to be put in that position. Despite my wishes, he took the tests anyway,” she said.

Mrs. DesJardins said after her middle son took the test, he complained that he didn’t have enough time to complete portions of it and many of the stories and questions in the modules were confusing.

The Common Core initiative was designed to create national standards to ensure that all children are prepared for college or work. Mr. Brouwer said there are a lot of positives for the Common Core modules. He said the curriculum helps develop great problem-solving skills in math. He said the English language arts modules use more regional sources and use more nonfiction reading materials, so students are learning about history and language skills in a productive way.

“The problem is New York state doesn’t have much of a delay between the release of the modules and the implementation,” Mr. Brouwer said. “The teachers need to have time to prepare. They need time for professional development to teach.”

He said many teachers had to learn the materials almost overnight before taking their teaching certification tests.

“We’ve heard a lot of good veteran teachers say they are leaving the profession because this isn’t the kind of climate they want to work in,” Mr. Brouwer said.

Not only are teachers having to put this new material before their students; they also are being graded by the progress of their students, Mr. Brouwer said.

“There are a lot of people who feel there are bad teachers and the teacher evaluations are a good way to rush them out,” Mr. Brouwer said. “Across the board, it’s affecting everyone.”

Patrick A. Hill, whose children attend the Watertown City School District, said his family decided taking the tests would be just another step in his three stepdaughters’ academic careers.

“I grew up taking assessment tests and I don’t think it’s had any adverse affect on me,” Mr. Hill said.

He compared the momentum behind opting out to parents getting behind the decision not to vaccinate their children.

“It felt like an Internet sensation that some parents might just get on without learning more about it,” Mr. Hill said. “If parents are going to make this decision, they should do the research, read more than one story about it and make sure it’s right for them.”

He can see the challenges with the new program as he helps his stepdaughters with their homework.

“I can see it working for the kids in the long run,” Mr. Hill said. “I can see them getting the right answers a lot sooner than I did at the same point in my academic career.”

His children are being taught in a different way than he was, which he said makes helping them with their homework difficult sometimes.

“It puts you in an awkward position when you’re not teaching the same way at home as they’re being taught in school,” Mr. Hill said.

Monique R. Medsger said when she and her husband discussed the tests, they decided their 9-year-old would be tested in one way or another.

“Nobody really likes tests,” Mrs. Medsger said. “My husband thinks there is too much testing for kids, but we still want them to take the tests and keep up with the kids in their class.”

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