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Opting out of Common Core

The new vocabulary terms parents are learning real quick

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Mention the words “Common” and “Core” in succession to a parent or educator, and it’s possible to hear the same comparison:

“It’s like building an airplane in the air.”

When the New York State Education Department rolled out its version of Common Core State Standards in 2013, it promised to lead the charge in establishing new K-12 standards.

After discovering that a flawed system rolled out quickly with little educator input, parents responded with heavy criticism. Starting in 2012-13, they decided to opt their children out of Core-aligned standardized tests, with state numbers increasing tenfold in 2013-14, and then quadrupling in 2014-15. Now, with Gov. Cuomo criticizing the statewide Common Core rollout, the scrutinization has only increased. Opt-out numbers are expected to rise, too.

But what does it mean to opt out? Is there change beyond the horizon? And what exactly is the status of that mammoth airplane in the sky?

How Common Core Came to Be

What we know today as the Common Core State Standards originated in 2009, when state education leaders and politicians adopted new standards for proficiency in grades K-12 in English language arts/literacy and mathematics. The standards would be evaluated through annual tests – starting in third grade, with preparation beginning in kindergarten – which would partly determine teacher performance. Plus, data collected from these exams would be used to track student performance through the public school system.

States were given the option to adopt the standards, with federal Race to the Top money promised to those who joined in. Moreover, grant money from a number of foundations - including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation - further incentivized states to adopt. New York was the first large state to move to Common Core by adopting a new teacher evaluation system in 2010, receiving a $700 million Race to the Top grant that year. It started testing students on the standards in 2011, and began aligning scores to teacher evaluations in 2013.

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As test preparation began, and as students returned home with lower scores and ample frustration, parents began to see problems with Common Core. They weren't too happy with  the airplane-under-construction philosophy, since it was their children sitting in coach.

Two Mom's Share Their Experiences with The Common Core

“I can’t wait til’ Common Core is gone so I can get 100s again," is how Stacey Kahn's son felt about it. The Port Ewen mom reports that before the introduction of the Common Core, he was a high-scoring math student. Kahn said she couldn’t help her son at home because he had no materials to bring home and, instead, was working from the EngageNY online module. Without answer keys, and without seeing the child’s work on the page, it created a challenge for Kahn. That’s before mentioning the entirely new approach to math comprehension, which parents were having trouble deciphering.

“I understand they’re saying they’re raising the bar, but it was unnecessarily tricky,” she says. The challenging assignments are only one piece of what Anna Shah calls “a trifecta.”

As for opting out, she says her son "knows (opting out) is a political choice, [and] that we are saying that, as a family, we don't want our child in a test-prep culture. He knows the message that we're sending, and there's a fine line, but we're being honest with him," Kahn says. "But he says 'I'm stupid, I can't do this.' It's the parent's job to say, 'This is not your fault, this is an adult problem.'"

“After seeing what we were aware of, I felt that (the standards) were quite advanced and the expectation would be quite different than what we were used to,” says Shah, a Town of Poughkeepsie parent of a second-grader in the Spackenkill School District, and opt-out advocate. Shah held her child back from kindergarten in 2012-13 because she anticipated challenges with Common Core. Primarily, she didn’t like how quickly the state education department rolled out the system.

“There were benefits to Common Core, to the data collection, to the teacher evaluation, but instead of addressing these things from the get go they swept things under the rug and pushed them out and hoped that people would go away,” Shah says.

But people didn’t go away. Shah was among the parents who faced down then-state Education Commissioner John B. King in October 2013 at a Spackenkill High School town hall about Common Core. King - now education secretary under President Obama - ended the contentious town hall early as parents challenged the standards and their rollout. This further strengthened opposition to Common Core, and as the 2013-14 standardized tests began, more than 50,000 students statewide opted out.

Since, criticism of Common Core has grown, and parents have spread their concerns, primarily through social media. Some local education leaders, too, have spoken out against the Common Core rollout.

"If one were writing a book on how to fail successfully, implementing this would’ve been a bestseller,” says Enlarged City School District of Middletown Superintendent Kenneth Eastwood. “Everything that was done was done the wrong way, with the wrong attitude and position. It was actually designed to fail. People know that now.”

Parents demonstrated that in 2014-15, as more than 200,000 students statewide opted out of the standardized Common Core tests.

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The Cost of Opting Out

How are local school districts responding to the movement? In short, it depends.

The state had previously threatened to sanction districts - through taking away state aid - where more than 5 percent of eligible students opted out of the tests. That hasn’t happened, though in August, new state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said districts with high opt-out rates in 2015-16 may be held to sanctions, everything from a conversation with a superintendent to withholding federal funds.

The threat of sanctions means districts take individual approaches with parents asking to opt out. As an example, the Saugerties Central School District was subject of parental scorn in April 2015 for an online post by Superintendent Seth Turner titled “Think Test Refusal Doesn’t Harm Anything?” Kahn said in her district, Kingston, parents were asked to meet with school principals, who would attempt to convince parents to let their child take the tests. In Middletown, Eastwood says he chooses to be frank with parents.

“I said I was not going to use this data to make any critical decisions about your child,” Eastwood says. “I’ve always been ‘Don’t worry about it. It’s a state mandate; we have to administer it.’”

Parents in Middletown have to formally request to opt out. Parents seeking advice on opting out should consult parents and school leaders to understand their district’s approach.

“There are some districts that are cooperative,” says Shah, who had written to Turner in Saugerties and, in her advocacy, has worked with parents living in a number of districts. “Many of them are getting a great deal of push back from the state education department.”

The opt-out numbers actually hurt districts like Middletown the most, Eastwood said. There, the students who have opted out were generally high test scorers. Thus, “all the data from our schools is skewed to the lower end.” This could mean, with high opt-out numbers, that Middletown may one day lose funding. But that hasn’t yet shown to be true.

New York State Rolls Out a Survey for Parents and Educators

Just before the 2015-16 school year began, Gov. Andrew Cuomo added his opinion to the Common Core debate.

“The fact is that the current Common Core program in New York is not working, and must be fixed,” he said in a statement dated September 3, 2015.

Cuomo appointed a commission to investigate flaws in Common Core, with a report expected in January, just before the governor’s State of the State address.

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As part of this investigation, the state launched AIMHighNY, a survey in which the public is asked to submit opinions on what works, what needs improvement and what needs to be eliminated from the Common Core standards. The state says the survey “is not a referendum on the standards,” and “only comments tied to a specific standard will be considered” by state educators, who will present recommended changes to the Board of Regents. Any approved changes wouldn’t go into effect until 2016-17.

The survey also tells the public that the aim isn’t to “start over,” but to “improve what already exists.”

“I’m not convinced that this is a genuine initiative to resolve the issues and concerns,” says Shah, who predicts up to 500,000 students may opt out of testing in 2015-16. “If you look at the governor’s statement, it’s that he intends to revamp Common Core. But if you look at the state education survey there’s a disclaimer that the state education department has no intention of rewriting Common Core, and we are continuing Common Core, but we are interested in your feedback.”

The state Department of Education did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

Still, state language says that New York will proceed teaching to the Common Core standards, though they may be tweaked over the next few years. It means that a cohort of students over the last five years have seen a dramatic shift in what they learn, and how they learn it.

“You have a whole group of kids moved through the system for five years, and now they’ll be turned in a whole new direction,” says Eastwood. “It’s a sad situation for a state that needs direction badly.”

Timothy Malcom is a freelance writer for Hudson Valley Parent magazine.