As Connecticut prepares to launch a new standardized test that will be taken on computers, some parents are pushing to pull their children out of the exams.
"I'm just concerned that this hasn't been reviewed thoroughly," said Candice Cushman, who has submitted a request to Ellington educators to have her three children exempted from the test. "I'm hearing collective issues raised by teachers, legislators and parents. There are just way to many concerns and I feel it's not developmentally on point."
The new test created by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium — a group of 23 states, including Connecticut — is the linchpin in a series of education reforms whose rollout has been criticized by Republican lawmakers, teachers, and parents as botched and too fast. Testing begins March 18.
"The process or lack thereof is what's concerning me," Cushman said. "It's like this was just slipped under a rug — all of a sudden."
The changes may seem sudden for parents, but it was back in 2010 that the state Board of Education approved a new set of new set of academic goals called the Common Core State Standards.
The Smarter Balanced test is based on those new standards, but many parents didn't become aware of either until this year when schools districts began aggressively wheeling out new curriculum based on the Common Core to prepare students for the new test.
Connecticut districts had the option this year to give either the old Connecticut Mastery Test or what is called a field test" of the Smarter Balanced assessment. By law, an annual assessment must be given in certain grades and subjects.
Ninety-percent of Connecticut districts are choosing to give the Smarter Balanced field test — a much higher percentage than in most of the other consortium states. Next year, all Connecticut students will take the new test.
The parents who don't want their children to take the test most commonly say they fear the new test is not developmentally appropriate; they have concerns that young students don't have needed computer skills; and they don't want their children to be involved in "testing" the test.
When Kim Nagy-Maruschock of Portland asked to have her third-grade son opt out of the test, she said she was told "we have no wiggle room. Your child must take the test."
But when she persisted and met with school administrators, their position changed. "In the end, they explained that they understand they can't force our son to take the test and he will be allowed to read a book during the testing time," Nagy-Maruschock said.
She said she doesn't want her son to take the test because she doesn't think it's developmentally appropriate and also because she sees it as partly a test of his computer skills, which doesn't seem fair when he's only in third grade.
"I think for a child, it's a very anxiety-inducing situation to try to sit there and try to navigate on a computer on top of trying to do the math problem," she continued. "It compounds the stress."
Deborah Stevenson, an attorney who works with a group that is calling for legislation to ensure the right of parents to have their children opt out of the test, said current law does not address the issue. In addition, the law does not provide any penalties for parents – or children – who refuse the test.
The situation leads to confusion, Stevenson said, as does, she noted, a December state Department of Education memo that suggests that school officials tell parents who don't want their child tested that there is no provision for this under state and federal law.
But then, the memo says that if a parent insists that child not be tested, districts "generally" do not test the student and the student is counted as absent for purposes of testing.
"The mass confusion is coming directly from the state Department of Education. They are giving two different messages," Stevenson said.
But Kelly Donnelly, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education, said this month the matter should be clear: both state and federal laws require public school students to take the annual state assessment in certain grades and subjects.
Donnelly also noted that if a school or district has a participation rate that is less than 95 percent, it could lower its performance rating.
"The shift to new statewide assessments is undoubtedly a big change," Donnelly said. "It is understandable that some might not be completely comfortable with the transition."
The hope is, Donnelly said, that "continued explanation and increased familiarity with the new tests will help relieve parents of any anxiety they may have."
Mark Waxenberg, executive director of the Connecticut Education Association, said he believes — for this particular field test — it would be wise for the state to give parents the chance to have their children opt out of the tests.
"I do believe that because of the well-recognized poor rollout of this," Waxenberg said, "it should cause the state to reconsider and make it very clear that if a parent believes that their child is going to have some traumatic experience … associated with this test, then they should be encouraged to have the child not take test."
Test For Juniors
Parents report varying experiences when they want to opt out. Josh Blanchfield, a parent of a third-grader at the University of Hartford Magnet School, said "the principal was 100 percent supportive."
Other parents say they have submitted multiple requests, gotten turned down or haven't heard back, but several said they will persist in their requests and will ultimately instruct their children not to take the test.
In various districts, school officials report a very small number of parents who are attempting to have their children opt out of the test. Of the handful of administrators contacted, most said they uphold the state's directions to say there is no legal provision for a child to opt out of the test and that the child must take the test On the other hand, some said that if a parent refuses to allow the child to take the test — or the child refuses — there isn't much that can be done..
Paul Vicinus, West Hartford's director of teaching and assessment, met this month with about two dozen parents at Conard High School, many of them parents of juniors, to discuss the Smarter Balanced test.
He said that parents of juniors are getting the most push back from their children because last year those students took the Connecticut Academic Performance Test as sophomores and thought at the time that this was their final experience with state standardized tests.
But under the Smarter Balanced system, high school students are tested during their junior year.
"That's the hardest, hardest part, I've got to be honest ... the students who thought they were done and they are not," Vicinus said. "That may be a bitter pill to swallow."
Ryan Paulekas of Glastonbury High School is one of those juniors who faces SATs, ACTs, Advanced Placement tests and final exams this spring. Adding Smarter Balanced is "overkill," he said. "They are piling too much on at this point."
Others such as East Haddam Superintendent Mary Beth Iacobelli said that "while we are going to do everything possible to get the maximum participation rate, we won't resist parents if they are insisting that their kids don't take it."
"I've asked for guidance from the state," Iacobelli said. "I feel like we are in some gray area. … Logistically, I can't imagine forcing students and parents to do something that they are so adamantly against. When push comes to shove, what power do I have to hold the line?"Copyright © 2015, CT Now