ORWELL – For some Ohio students, the stakes are high.

And stressful classroom cultures created by “high stakes” assessment tests that are based on federal Common Core Standards and mandated through the Bush Jr.-era No Child Left Behind Act are causing some parents of Grand Valley Local Schools students to opt their kids out.

Grand Valley parents have been circulating forms that advise the district of their intention to withdraw their students from the tests. But, as Grand Valley Superintendent William Nye pointed out last week in a post on the district’s Facebook page, refusing to take the federally required exams could mean setbacks for the district, as well as its students.

‘Unfair to schools’

Although Ohio parents can opt their students out of assessment exams administered by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for Colleges and Careers or the American Institutes for Research, those students still technically receive a score – a zero.

For students at a “high stakes” federal assessment grade level, missing out on those “must-pass” tests could keep them from advancing or graduating:

• Third-grade pupils must take a reading assessment test, and could otherwise be withheld from fourth grade

• English as a Second Language students who do not complete the Ohio Test of English Language Acquisition cannot exit the program

• High school students who do not pass the Ohio Graduation Test – which will soon become the end-of-course Ohio Assessment Test – will not receive diplomas

These technically failing scores can affect a district’s Ohio Report Card, which may restrict its ability to spend federal allotments or place it in a school improvement plan for administrative remediation. Families and businesses often take these scores into account when deciding to move into an area, according to Nye. Also, district teachers’ effectiveness ratings take a hit, which could affect their future employment opportunities.

“That’s where it’s unfair to schools,” Nye said. “(Students) may have learned everything but they didn’t take the test so they get a zero on them. ... And, of course, our report card goes down, even though we had nothing to do with it.”

Ohio Department of Education spokesman John Charlton said there’s no way around it.

“That’s the way (No Child Left Behind) is written,” he said. “It’s important to do those tests that inform educational decisions; that inform district decisions; that inform state decisions.”

A public meeting for Grand Valley district families about the opt out issue will likely be held sometime in the first week of February, Nye told The Star Beacon on Friday.

‘Way too much testing’

The Ohio Department of Education advises districts to inform parents of the potential consequences of pulling their kids out of the tests.

Yet, on a fundamental level, educators and administrators sympathize. Intensifying scrutiny of underperforming districts leads to an anxious classroom culture that focuses on meeting score goals.

“Do we understand that it can be burdensome? Yes. Do we understand it can cause a level of anxiety? Yes,” Charlton said.

He said there was a time when teachers would write test score goals on the chalkboard for students to visualize. Districts would hold pep rallies, to psych students up for the state tests.

“If you have a pep rally and use a good pep talk, that helps a football team – that doesn’t help a kid take a test,” Charlton said – it only paints the assessments as obstacles or adversaries to overcome, worsening the do or die mentality that leads parents to opt out.

He said the department encourages districts to ease anxiety about the testing schedule however possible.

“Let’s not make a big deal about it – let’s make it part of the educational process,” he said.

But so much of that process is tied up in government data mining, said Nye. He said it’s a common misconception that it’s the school districts foisting this deluge of exams on students.

Ellen Winer, Grand Valley Elementary School principal, said teachers would rather spend less time preparing for them.

“We understand the importance of assessing to determine student learning and we understand the importance of accountability, however, the amount of teaching time and learning time that has been taken away because of legislation – it’s really detracting from our kids’ education,” she said.

“It’s way too much testing.”

Ohio students spend an average of nearly 20 hours of each school year taking exams – as well as roughly 15 additional hours of studying – according to a testing practices survey administered by the state education department. In a report released Jan. 15, Superintendent of Public Instruction Richard Ross’ appealed to Gov. John Kasich to reduce testing time by nearly 20 percent through certain legislative changes:

• Limiting the overall average time spent on state and district assessments from 1 to 3 percent to 2 percent, with 1 percent alloted for studying

• Eliminating the aforementioned third-grade reading test, while adding a summer session test for pupils who need it to continue

• Eliminating state-required district math and writing diagnostic tests for first- through third-grade pupils

• Eliminating learning plans that measure students’ academic growth as part of evaluation for pre-K through third-grade teachers and fourth- through twelfth-grade teachers in non-core subject areas

‘Rattled with these exams’

This school year, the state rolled out its new Ohio Assessment Test and began phasing out the Ohio Graduation Test. The OGTs – which cover the five core subjects of reading, writing, math, social studies and science, each of which must be passed to receive a diploma – are being tossed in favor of a seven-subject array of exams, for which students accumulate a passing score between all the subjects.

The OGTs are comprehensive and students get multiple tries at passing each, starting in their sophomore year. The OATs are administered at the end of the course – that way, the material is still fresh in students’ minds, Charlton said, allowing for more in-depth test questions.

“They are more rigorous as well, but they are more fair to the student and do a better job of capturing the students’ mastery of these skills,” he said.

While the state education system continues to be refined, district administrators statewide are seeking legislative change, Nye said. He said the concerns of parents have not fallen on “deaf ears.” He said State Rep. John Patterson (D-Jefferson) has taken up the issue in the General Assembly.

“All of us are down there discussing with (the Ohio Department of Education),” he said.

“Schools would love to just teach and not be rattled with these exams.”

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