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Potsdam parent, who teaches in Massena, speaks out against testing

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POTSDAM - Thomas French has been a teacher for 24 years and during that time he said he’s seen the profession change and not for the better.

Mr. French, who teaches English at J.W. Leary Junior High School in Massena, is also the parent of two middle school students, a fifth grader and an eighth grader in the Potsdam Central School District.

He recently sent letters to district officials in an attempt to exempt his two children from taking the state ELA and mathematics test.

“In the next two weeks, our 8 to 14 year-old children will be subjected to nine hours of high-stakes testing. It will literally bring some to tears,” he wrote in a letter sent to Superintendent Patrick H. Brady, Middle School Principal James M. “Jamie” Cruikshank, Senator Joseph Griffo, Assemblywoman Addie Jenne Russell and members of the Potsdam school board.

He then noted that many other tests given to adults and college students pale in comparison to the tests that are given to elementary and middle school students.

The LSAT for law school admission is 2.9 hours plus a 35 minute writing sample, the NYPD Officer exam is a 90 minute test, the Series 7 exam, which licenses stock brokers, is a six-hour test and the The American Board of Dermatology certification exam is eight hours with breaks.

Despite claims from the Commissioner of Education, paid consultants and the State Education Department that the tests are “authentic and grade level,” Mr. French said he feels they are neither.

“As an educator and parent who has seen samples recently provided by the state, I can assure you their are neither,” he wrote. “Education is about nurturing children. It requires individualized attention to the specific needs of each student over testing is not the answer.”

In response to his first letter to district officials, Mr. Cruikshank replied that should Mr. French’s children be in school on the day of the exams or the makeup days they would be tested.

“The state had made it clear to us that we have to make every reasonable attempt to have all of our students test,” Mr. Cruikshank wrote.

In his reply, Mr. Brady pointed out that last year the school district passed a resolution voicing concerns over the increase in standardized testing.

“While we share some of your concerns, we do have an obligation to implement the new standards and assessments,” Mr. Brady wrote. “As a teacher who will be providing these assessments to your students, I am sure you can understand these requirements.”

Mr. Brady said last year the district received some questions about students opting out of exams, but this year in his district, like many others across the state, those concerns and number of requests have increased, prompting him to send a email to parents in the district explaining why students should take the tests.

“There is an option where students can refuse to take the exam, but while we understand parent’s frustrations this is not on option we recommend,” he said.

In the email he sent to parents, Mr. Brady wrote, “It has been brought to our attention that some parents may be considering the idea of opting their child(ren) our of the Grade 3-8 ELA and Math exams, which will be conducted over the next couple of weeks. In following this issue from across the state, it appears this ‘boycott’ is due to concerns with the amount of tests, length of testing, and/or lack of time to prepare students for these state assessments.

“While I fully understand the frustration, including the fact that the tests are being administered before the new curriculum has been fully presented by the SED (State Education Department), I strongly caution against this method of protest,” he added.

Mr. Brady then presented the state’s official position on opting out in the form of a statement from Director of the Office of State Assessments Steve Katz.

“Can parents opt-out of assessments at school? The answer is: no. All students are expected to participate in state assessments as part of the core academic program. Absences from all or part of the required academic program should be managed consistent with the attendance policies of the district.”

Mr. Katz then notes that students who do not take the test, regardless of the reason why are reported as “not tested,” will count as a strike against the school on the district’s report card.

Mr. Brady explained, “Given state accountability measures, schools could be penalized if they do not meet certain measures in regard to these exams. This includes an expected 95 percent of students participating in the exams, as well as a level of achievement both as a whole and within student subgroups.”

In a second letter send to the same district officials, Mr. French pointed out that his concerns extend beyond the tests themselves to include the privacy of students, as it has been reported by multiple national news agencies that the state is providing student information to private companies.

“According to recent news reports this information includes students’ names, addresses, test scores, learning disabilities, attendance, disciplinary records, and in some cases social security numbers,” he wrote. “This information is being shared with “private companies selling educational products and services.”

In other words, our children’s test results and other information is being mined for marketing and profit.”

Mr. French then cited federal law, which he felt supported his right to have his children not take the state exams.

“According to federal law, which supersedes state laws and regulations, parents possess the ‘fundamental right’ to direct the upbringing and education of their children.”

Furthermore, the Supreme Court has criticized a state legislature for trying to interfere “with the power of parents to control the education of their own,’” he wrote, referring to the case of Meyer Vs. Nebraska.

He concluded his second letter with, “Just to be clear, the Potsdam Central School District does not have permission to administer any state assessments to my children. I would appreciate your respecting my wishes. If you would like us to provide care for (his children) in the mornings during the testing times, please let me know.”

When asked after school on Tuesday if his children took the tests, Mr. French said he didn’t want his children to be targeted or singled out, noting they were sent to school to take the exams.

“We told our kids to do their best,” he said. “We didn’t want to put them in the middle of this. My kids saw me do my best to alleviate a something that I feel is unfair, but I’m not going to put them on the spot.”

Mr. French said he noted his daughter, who is only 11, has voiced concerns over the tests, and he told her the same thing he told his students in Massena.

“What’s the worse that can happen?” he said. “I pointed out to them that there is nothing on this test that will affect their grades.”

When asked about the irony of he being a teacher and not wanting his own children to take the exams, Mr. French pointed out that the profession today is a lot different than it was when he started 24 years ago.

“I’ve been teaching for 24 years. I was teaching long before high-stakes testing became a part of what we do in education. I love working with kids,” he said. “As an educator I want to do what’s best for my children and my students, which sometimes means advocating for them through the processes available to us.”

Mr. French said he also wanted to make it clear that his stance against the tests is not something that he’s brought into his classroom.

“In the classroom I’m going to do everything I can do to prepare them for what they’re facing and to put them at ease,” he said. “I want them to feel prepared and ready and not be demeaned by the test.”

That being said, Mr. French said the goals of the common core are admirable, but he just doesn’t agree with how they are trying to be reached.

“The goal of the common core is a noble one, but I’m not sure they’re going about it the best way,” he said.

The New York state ELA (English) exams are being offered this week from Tuesday through Thursday with the makeup dates being Friday, Monday and Tuesday.

The math exam will be offered April 24-26 with the makeup dates being April 29-May 1.

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