OSWEGO, NY – John Sheffield, “a parent and education advocate,” addressed the Oswego school board Tuesday night regarding state aid and state testing.
“The current influx of state aid is a little misleading,” he said. “The figure I heard takes us back to pre-2008 levels. (The Governor) took away 20 dollars and gave us back five.”
“I am here to speak about parental rights regarding New York State testing. I put two boys through this district; I adopted this community as my home back in 1983. I love the people in this community, I love the teachers. I have relationships with several board members in this community,” he continued. “It’s very simple; every parent in New York State has the right to refuse these tests for their child. I hope that many in this community do just that. The district will not loose money.”
The growth formula used to determine student growth is seriously flawed and not accepted as reliable, he said, adding, “However, that formula, in turn, impacts our teachers, our students, ultimately our schools and then our community.”
In fact, it is better for a child to be scored as a refusal code 999 because that 999 cannot harm a teacher, it can’t, he said.
He also pointed out that some New York State Regents have publicly stated the tests should not be used to evaluate teachers.
In regard to the testing, one Regent went so far as to say “some students were being set up to fail.”
“I want you to be honest, let parents know they have the right to refuse. Let them know they have the option. Those that choose that option, treat them with respect. I don’t want to hear about parents in my community being uncomfortable, pressured or feeling harassed or intimidated. And, thank them for being involved in what are difficult times,” he said. “I do not children to feel pressured once their parents have stated their wishes. In my opinion, that would be morally and ethically wrong.”
He wants alternatives to “sit and stare” for those who don’t take the tests.
Students who don’t take the test must be on their best behavior that day, he added. No napping, no sash; they are to behave in a respectful manner because “respect in a two-way street.”
For those who take the test, he said, he hopes their parents encourage them to do their very best.
“We have been put in a situation by a legislature that allowed themselves to hold a rushed voted on a budget after only three hours of having the governor’s plan in front of them. The governor’s plan, I don’t have enough paper in my house, the governor’s plan is about this thick,” he said picking up a huge stack of paperwork.
Things were easy when the nuclear plants were “pumping gobs and gobs of money” into the community, he said.
“It was easy to be a leader. We had programs, we had it all. It’s easy to lead when times are easy. It’s not so easy to lead when times go sour. I would love to see the community of Oswego be a leader once again,” he told the board.
Board member Tom DeCastro asked how teachers of special needs students would be evaluated.
“Are they all evaluated at the state level like math and ELA teachers?” he asked.
The math and ELA teachers are going to bear the brunt of the New York State assessments, Sheffield replied.
“What happen in a math class, for example, can have an affect on the other teachers in the building. It’ll be the same as for another other student. They don’t discriminate in their formula; the growth formula that they use doesn’t discriminate,” he said.
According to Superintendent Ben Halsey, the district will have “a very narrow window of time to renegotiate with the principals’ union and the administrators’ union and OCTA (Oswego Classroom Teachers’ Association) once the state finalizes what they already voted on but there are a lot of uncertainties in it that are being sorted out.”
The district will have to go back to the table and renegotiate its evaluation process from start to finish, he said.
“In order to get the funding that has been shared all over the entire state aid run, we have to settle and agree as a group to the state by Nov. 15. The threat is that our state aid would be withheld. There is a great deal of work to do in a narrow window of time,” Halsey pointed out. “It is what it is; we have an obligation to move forward because we don’t want to put ourselves in a situation where we don’t receive the funding. It’s a difficult spot for us to be in.”
He said he could only speak to what information that has been shared to him as a superintendent of schools.
“There is not an opt out option for parents that we understand that is something we can endorse as a school district,” Halsey said. “That’s information shared with us from a number of sources – it is part of the commissioner’s regulations of these assessments. It is our obligation to offer those and parents who choose to do this, refuse to sit for this test, are doing so in violation of the commissioner’s regulations. I wholly recognize the passion and concern for where this thing is and I’m not a proponent of forcing the students and parents to have their kids take this test and make them sit and ride it out … So we’re going to take the approach as a district to find a compromise in order to respect the parents’ decision to make a stand in this particular case. And if they want their student to refuse it, then we will find some other location for them to attend and work on something academic for the time period that they are here.”
Compared to some other areas, Oswego hasn’t had a high level of parents that have chosen to refuse a test.
“In fact, it has been fairly nominal in comparison to the total of the students who take the test,” Halsey said.
“By sending out specific information to speak to this, I think puts us in jeopardy of being in violation of our oath and our obligation as keepers of the commissioner’s regulations,” the superintendent added.
“We’re not endorsing anything,” DeCastro said.
“I’m going to compare it to; I have the right on a really snowy day and school is not canceled, I have the absolute right to keep my child home from school because I believe the weather is too horrible to get her there,” said Pam Dowd, a parent. “I’m going to say the choice of a parent to have their child refuse the test falls under that same little right. Is it a law? Who can find it on the books? No one can probably.”
“We as a board are not endorsing not administering the test like other districts in the state have done. We’re not saying that. We are administering the test. But the information is out there. With the mess that the Governor’s made of this whole thing, and not just the Governor, the representatives that voted for it too, this is a great discussion,” Board President Kathleen Allen said.
Some Oswego schools are on the state’s “focus list,” the superintendent noted. One way to get off the list is to improve students’ test scores, he said, adding that is something parents might want to consider when deciding whether their child takes the tests.
Everybody works very hard to come off that list from the parents to the students and everyone in the school, Dowd said.
Dowd, a member of Leighton’s Home and School Association, said, adding that “It’s all you’re focused on – getting off the focus list. Yet we’ve been on because of ELA. And can I just point out that Leighton Elementary sent its Battle of the Books teams to the county level two years in a row!”
Another parent said most parents don’t know what is going on.
“It would be great if we could be informed. Then we can properly go out and help to fix the problem that we have right here,” she said. “When I had kids, I was excited to send them to this school district. I’m not any more. It’s not because of the district. It’s because of everything that’s being taken away from you guys. You need to at least be able to inform the community so we can band together and do want we need to.”