MCAS opt-out movements drive Valley schools’ downgrade

  • Danika Tyminski, the sixth-grade teacher at Swift River School in New Salem, works with Amber Lyman on a writing project. Last year Tyminski taught many of the same students in fifth grade, 100 percent of whom opted out. of taking state standardized tests this year.

  • Danika Tyminshi, the Sixth Grade teacher at Swift River School in New Salem, teaches class Tuesday afternoon. Last year Tyminski taught many of the same students in Fifth Grade, 100 percent of whom opted out of the PARCC exam. —Gazette Staff/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Danika Tyminshi, the Sixth Grade teacher at Swift River School in New Salem, works with Jamison Balenon on a writing project. Front right is Lucas Fellows and Shea Savage. Last year Tyminski taught many of the same students in Fifth Grade, 100 percent of whom opted out of the PARCC exam. —Gazette Staff/CAROL LOLLIS

@cmlindahl
Published: 9/28/2016 1:18:17 AM

Last spring, all 25 of Danika Tyminski’s fifth-graders did something nearly unheard of in Massachusetts: They refused to take the state standardized test.

So the Swift River School teacher traded the preparation and 24 hours of test-taking time for other educational activities for her students — rehearsing a play, studying salamanders as part of climate change research and even journeying into pre-algebra, which “in other years I haven’t been able to get to because we’re doing so much test prep,” she said.

Swift River, which is in New Salem and also serves Wendell, is one of dozens of schools across the state in which fewer than 90 percent of students in any particular grade took the MCAS or PARCC tests. At Swift River and at many other schools, the low participation rates resulted from successful grassroots “opt-out” movements among families who reject the value of the tests for a number of reasons.

Some argue that teachers have been forced to “teach to the test” or that the exams do not accurately assess a variety of learning styles. Swift River Principal Kelley Sullivan said the opt-out movement there took hold as state officials reworked the standardized testing regime.

Swift River was among the schools that tried the PARCC test, which is used by a consortium of other states, as Massachusetts was considering either adopting it, staying with the two-decade old MCAS test or merging the two. After state officials last fall decided to develop a next-generation MCAS test, schools had the choice to offer PARCC or the old MCAS.

“We felt coming from our school committee down to the teachers and families that we shouldn’t have to put our students through a test that was no longer going to be used,” Sullivan said.

Test participation rates, however, were put to use by the state. Both PARCC and MCAS participation figures were used by the state to calculate a school’s accountability rating — a five-level system that determines the level of state review and governance in schools.

While just 16 percent of Swift River’s students participated in the test, the school was not among the state’s 14 schools that were downgraded to Level 3 due to low participation. Rather than a rating, Swift River is labeled as offering “insufficient data” on student performance, which may have been because of its small size of 174 students.

Other local schools did not escape the Level 3 label — a category shared with the lowest 20 percent of performing schools.

Of those 14, over half are in western Massachusetts: Amherst Regional Middle School, Leverett Elementary School, Hilltown Cooperative Charter Public School, Paul R. Baird Middle School in Ludlow, Balliet Middle School in Springfield, Ware Junior/Senior High School, Muddy Brook Regional Elementary School in Great Barrington and Undermountain Elementary School in Sheffield.

Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Mitchell D. Chester in a statement said those school are among a small minority — some 99 percent of students statewide took their standardized tests.

“We do not know why participation was low in those schools,” Chester said. “We only know that fewer students took the test than were scheduled to.”

‘A lot of pressure’

Every year in third through sixth grades Ruthie Page Weinbaum had taken the MCAS.

“I’ve always disliked the MCAS just because it’s a lot of pressure,” Ruthie said on Bill Newman’s WHMP-FM radio show in February. “We lose a lot of class time.”

But then, she said, she learned the tests failed to accurately assess English language learners or students with disabilities.

Enough was enough — Ruthie helped lead an opt-out movement at the Amherst Regional Middle School. She and 36 of her classmates handed back their exams on test-taking day and said “No thank you.”

At the Amherst middle school, 85 percent of seventh-graders took the English test and 81 percent the math test. Among eighth-graders, 98 percent took the English test and 97 percent the math and science tests.

The school was downgraded from Level 2 to Level 3 because of the opt-out movement. But according to school officials, that won’t mean much to students and their families.

“There is no change in the quality of education,” Principal Patty Bode said. “There’s just a change in the number of students who have opted out.”

As the movement took hold at the beginning of the year, Amherst school officials made the decision not to interfere. Advocates say that there’s no legal requirement that students take a standardized test, just that schools offer it.

But state education officials say that participation is mandatory — though there’s no penalty for students who decline to participate at the elementary and middle school levels. Tenth-graders are required to pass the MCAS in order to graduate.

Chester provided guidance to districts about what to do with students who opt-out. “The principal should see to it that the student is engaged in an alternate educational activity and is not distracting other students during the testing period,” he wrote.

The Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee in March unanimously passed a resolution affirming families’ legal right to decide whether their child would take a standardized test. “We don’t force a pencil in students’ hands, that would be unethical,” acting Superintendent Michael Morris said. “We did what we thought was the right thing — we did not get in the way of students opting out of the test.”

Five levels

Morris and Bode filed an appeal of the middle school’s Level 3 designation, which was rejected last week. Right now, it’s not clear what exactly the label will mean for the Amherst middle school and others.

Level 1 schools are the state’s highest performing. They are meeting goals of narrowing achievement gaps and as a result receive very limited state involvement.

Level 2 schools are either not meeting those goals, or have fewer than 95 percent standardized test participation. The state may suggest targeted assistance for specific groups of students and professional development opportunities.

Level 3 schools are either among the lowest 20 percent of performing schools or have less than 90 percent test participation. The state may select some of these districts for review. The districts are required to complete a self-assessment and develop improvement plans.

Level 4 schools are required to develop a state-approved improvement plan. Level 5 schools are ones that enter state receivership.

“It will be up to them (Department of Elementary and Secondary Education) to determine what level of involvement they want to have with our middle school,” Morris said. “I would hope the state would understand that we’re doing the ethical thing, which is respecting students’ rights.”

Department of education spokeswoman Jacqueline Reis responded to the Gazette’s questions with an emailed statement from the commissioner.

He wrote that the accountability rating system is designed to encourage high test participation rates, which is consistent with federal law.

“The 95 percent participation threshold has a 15-year history in Massachusetts and ensures that schools test all their students, not just their highest performers,” Chester stated. “We are committed to closing achievement gaps, and with some students not participating, we have an incomplete understanding of the gaps.”

Opt-out movements, he stated, have not drastically affected statewide participation levels: 98.6 percent of students took the English test, 98.5 percent the math test and 98.9 percent the science test.

‘Upend this system’

Educator Max Page said opt-out movements like the one led by his daughter Ruthie come after families realize the impact created on classroom instruction that comes from linking test performance to high-stakes factors like school ratings and graduation.

“That makes schools teach to the test,” Page said. “It’s sort of robbing the professional called the teacher of the ability to craft the curriculum that’s right for the students.”

Page, a University of Massachusetts Amherst professor and board member of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, pointed to New York as an example of how grassroots opt-outs can enact statewide change. Last year, over 200,000 third- through eighth-graders did not take New York’s standardized test. That represented 20 percent of all students eligible to be tested.

In that state, student scores were previously linked to teacher performance evaluations. Gov. Andrew Cuomo last year called for a moratorium on that practice until 2019 — which was an about-face because earlier that year he had called for test scores to account for half of some teachers’ evaluations.

Page hopes to see a similar critical mass of opt-outs in Massachusetts.

“The point of this is to upend this system,” he said. “If enough people opt out, no matter how much Mitchell Chester wants to punish schools, he will not be able to.”

‘No real context’

Over her 30-year career teaching high school English, Johanna Bartlett never much liked standardized tests.

“I had always been frustrated with that type of testing,” Bartlett said. “It was a problem for me that we spent so much time preparing for the test — and I questioned the value of the test.”

And now as chairwoman of the New Salem-Wendell School District, she was hearing Swift River teachers share that frustration. The committee agreed not to interfere with families’ decisions to opt out and hosted a forum in January on that option, which featured teachers, a representative from the state school committee association and recorded testimony from students. And teachers later spoke to parents at conferences about that option.

“I think that families started talking to each other,” said Tyminski, the fifth grade teacher who now teaches that same class of sixth-graders. “I was shocked that 100 percent opted out, but also very pleased.”

In order to not risk its government funding, teachers were sure to offer the test to every student on test day, Tyminski said.

Sullivan, the principal, said she was surprised to learn that Swift River was not moving to Level 3 as a result of the opt-out. School staff were prepared for the move from Level 1, she said.

At the now-Level 3 Leverett Elementary School, teachers and parents also prepared for a downgrade as 18 percent of students declined to sit for the PARCC exams.

“We were fully cognizant of the fact that it was going to impact us,” Principal Margot Lacey said. “People felt their moral obligation was paramount to a school accountability rating.

Lacey said she is hopeful that the next-generation MCAS will be developed as an appropriate tool for assessment. That would be unlike PARCC, she said, which never provided useful feedback for teachers.

But she has questions the value of tying participation rates to an otherwise high-performing school’s rating.

“It’s going to be an interesting conversation with parents about what it means because there’s no real context for us,” she said. “If we had full participation next year, our level rating would automatically go up – and it doesn’t mean anything.”

‘Completely wrong’

In some instances, the downgrading of schools in accountability ratings may counter their reputation or standardized test performance.

About 94 percent of seventh and eighth graders at the elite Boston Latin School took the PARCC exam this year. But because fewer than 95 percent of students participated, the school — consistently ranked among the best in the nation — was downgraded to Level 2.

In response, Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh said the rating system was flawed. “Parents and students aren’t being penalized, and they shouldn’t be. But the school is being penalized because the parents or the students opted out of the test,’’ The Boston Globe reported that Walsh said. “It’s completely wrong. It is not right.”

Locally, Hilltown Cooperative Charter Public School saw increases in year-to-year MCAS performance, but the school in Easthampton was downgraded to Level 3 due to participation rates. Its overall English and math scores stayed about the same, while its average science scores increased 19 percent.

And the downgrade came not from overall student participation rate, which was over 93 percent, but the participation rate among what’s known by the state as a “subgroup,” according to Daniel Klatz, education coordinator at the Hilltown school.

“The reason that our level changed was because specifically participation rates of students with disabilities,” he said. “If a subgroup shows a participation rate that is below 95 percent, then that affects the school’s accountability rating.”

Klatz would not specify the exact number of students in that subgroup, though he did say their participation rate was 89 percent.

Subgroup figures were not included in data released by the state Monday.

Klatz said this situation raises questions about what role standardized tests should play especially for students with learning difficulties for whom demonstrating proficiency on a standardized test is particularly challenging and anxiety-provoking.

“We’ve put so much stock into the test as being a measurement of educational quality, and maybe this is an opportunity to stop and pause and think about how to balance this with other factors,” he said.

Chris Lindahl can be reached at clindahl@gazettenet.com.




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