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Is This a Revolution in the Making?

Susan Notes: Here's how the newspaper summarizes the dilemma when parents don't let their kids take the NCLB-mandated tests: Ironically, the harsh remedies imposed by the act stem from parents’ rebellion against standardized testing. The situation is akin to the rancher punishing the cow when the vegetarian declines the steak.

I say it's good news because parents refuse to give their children over to the State.

Parents of Lagunitas School District students who on Tuesday didn’t let their children take standardized tests are nudging the district out of compliance with state and federal participation standards. The school district is afraid it could suffer as a result.

Standardized tests, while technically optional on an individual basis, are the means in which the federal government deems that the district is complying with the No Child Left Behind Act. If too many students opt out, the district can find itself at the mercy of the state which has the power to take control of the district.

School officials are worried that if low test turnout continues during another round of testing next month, the district will find itself in state-mandated "Program Improvement," a remedial and corrective status which takes control away from the district. The state department of education has the power to completely take over districts that remain in Program Improvement for five consecutive years.

The turn-out for the tests and the potential repercussions are making district principal Anne Nicksic uneasy.

"The state requires a 95 percent participation rate for [its standardized] tests," she said. "If we fail to make that for two years in a row then we’re in Program Improvement status. And last year we didn’t make 95 percent."

Less than 10 percent of 4th grade students from the district’s Open Classroom program showed up for Tuesday’s writing exam, a component of the state Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) program used to compare academic progress of both students and schools. The writing component is given to 4th and 7th grade students statewide, but parents can excuse their children from the tests with a note.

The second part of the STAR exams – a multiple choice test – will be given to all grades in April. Again, parents can excuse their children from the tests with a note.

But when the state looks at the combined attendance for the two tests as well other criteria including test scores to decide the school’s fate, Lagunitas School District could find itself lumped into a remedial program designed for "failing schools."

That hasn’t happened yet, but county education officials concede that it’s a possibility.

"We’ll know by next fall if we’re in Program Improvement status," District Superintendent Mary Buttler said.

Rejection of testing triggering sanctions

Parents, especially those whose children are in the district’s alternative Open Classroom program, often excuse their children from the exams, claiming STAR tests are not indicative of their children’s abilities.

Carol Normandi of Woodacre has two children in the district’s Open Classroom program. Her nine-year-old daughter, Maya, is in the 4th grade, which was tested Tuesday. Her mother said she and her husband agreed to keep their daughter home that day so she wouldn’t be tested.

"I don’t believe the tests are a productive assessment of our children," she told The Light. "It puts undue pressure on teachers to teach for the test and not to teach the curriculum they want to. It narrows the curriculum and does not allow in-depth education to happen."

Normandi said she plans to write notes excusing both children from the STAR multiple choice test in April.

"Open Classroom is an alternative program committed to education through hands-on experiential learning," she said. "So when something like the STAR test comes up, which is more focused on political needs rather than educational needs, we intend to opt out."

Superintendent Buttler supported the parents’ choice to abstain. "The standardized testing program is something some district parents and teachers object to – one test deciding the fate of a whole school or program. Many feel the tests do not reflect the performance of students in Lagunitas District," she said. "For us the tests provide pretty useless data. The students who opt out are frequently our smartest."

STAR participation rates and test scores are used to determine how schools can use federal "Title 1" funds from the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which the Bush Administration touts as successfully overhauling the nation’s failing schools. Critics of the act say the law imposes an impractical "one-size-fits-all" education accountability system across the country which stifles educators. The law comes up for reauthorization in Congress in 2007, and a bipartisan taskforce representing 50 state legislatures last week released a report calling for major changes in what it calls a deeply flawed law.

If Lagunitas School District is lumped into Program Improvement, the school will be forced to jump through various state-mandated hoops in an effort to bring the district back into compliance with state testing standards.

The maneuvers range from designating Title 1 funding for professional development and student tutoring, to cuts in funding and even restructuring the school altogether. Each year that the district languishes in Program Improvement, the state’s corrective actions become more severe. In the fifth year of Program Improvement status, the State of California takes over operation of the school.

District officials stand by parents’ choice

Ironically, the harsh remedies imposed by the act stem from parents’ rebellion against standardized testing. The situation is akin to the rancher punishing the cow when the vegetarian declines the steak.

Nonetheless, Nicksic, who joined the district last year, shares Superintendent Buttler’s support for parental choice, but is wary of the consequences.

"This presents an interesting dilemma," she said. "I believe in assessment, and this is what the state asks us to do. But the STAR tests are a very narrow range of assessment, and I respect parents for doing what they think is best for their kids."

Nicksic is concerned that the parents’ passive protest might not reach the intended ears and could result in hardship for the district. "There is a communication disconnect," she said. "The state doesn’t know the parents’ views. The state just thinks the school is failing. Parents should know that their actions may create complications for the district in the future. The corrective remedies will be a demand on personnel, time, and resources which could otherwise be dedicated to students and programs."

— Jim Kravets
Point Reyes Light


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