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Oneida City School District has one of the highest opt-out rates in NY state

Tom Magnarelli

With more than two-thirds of Oneida City School District students refusing to take the Common Core aligned exams this year, the district has one of the highest student opt out rates in New York state. But the standardized tests can provide the district with useful information that they will not have in 2015.

Steve Paz is a second and third grade special education teacher at Durhamville Elementary School in the Oneida City School District. He and his wife chose to opt out their fifth grade son from taking the Common Core-aligned exams this year because they believe the tests were used for other purposes than what they were meant for, such as teacher evaluations and school funding.

"As soon as you start coupling tests with state funding or grading a school or district against another school or district, we feel that the tests were never designed for that purpose," Paz said.

Paz said the tests can be especially difficult for special education students, who can take twice as much time on a test they take over three days.

"I know that our commissioner says we need to challenge students and I completely agree with that," Paz said. "There's a difference between giving a student a challenge and giving a student an impossible task."

Paz also said the test refusal movement was so successful in Oneida because parents organized to get information out to the community.

New York state started gradually adopting Common Core standards in 2010 with the promise of federal grants. But some of the teaching modules that were first rolled out needed to be improved, according to Ron Spatafora, the superintendent of the Oneida City School District. That got the snowball rolling and Spatafora says he saw the opt-out movement begin in his district about two years ago. He says he understands people’s frustrations with the test.

"I looked at some of the questions, and where there was a multiple choice question with four answers, sometimes three of the answers looked to me like they were correct or could have been correct," Spatafora said. "So, I had issues with that as well." 

But Spatafora also said the modules and tests can be tweaked and the exams provide the school district with data it needs to evaluate how it is doing compared to other similar school districts.

"We do a lot of work at the end of the school year and during the summer in terms of planning strategies for what we're going to do make things better going forward in the new year," Spatafora said. "We've been doing that forever. But its harder and harder to do when you don't have the data to compare."

New York State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia recently called the opt-out movement unreasonable and said educators supporting or encouraging it is unethical. The state education department and federal officials said no sanctions will be taken against schools with high opt-out rates.

Tom Magnarelli is a reporter covering the central New York and Syracuse area. He joined WRVO as a freelance reporter in 2012 while a student at Syracuse University and was hired full time in 2015. He has reported extensively on politics, education, arts and culture and other issues around central New York.