BUFFALO - As most of New York's elementary students take state tests meant to show how they are faring under a heavier academic load, thousands of kids are sitting the tests out under instructions from their parents, who say the state relies so heavily on testing that it's interfering with learning.
Advocacy groups estimate that more than 28,000 of the state's 1.2 million third- through eighth-graders are skipping this week's three-day English language arts assessments. That's more than double last year's number.
Depending on the district, students refusing the test either quietly read during the daily 60- to 90-minute sessions or stay at their desks doing nothing under much-criticized "sit-and-stare" policies.
Test results don't count toward student averages, but they do factor into some placement decisions, as well as teacher evaluations and school standings.
"These tests have changed the entire atmosphere of education for our children," said Danielle Flora, who wrote letters opting out her three daughters in the Islip School District. Long Island, where there has been an organized opt-out effort, has seen the highest refusal numbers.
"My children come home saying a large portion of the day is for test prep," said Flora, who has worked as a high school guidance counselor for 10 years.
Opposition to standardized testing is not new but has intensified in the last two years after the state made assessments at least 20 percent of a teacher's annual performance score and based questions on the more challenging Common Core learning standards that have been adopted by most states.
Although Education Commissioner John King Jr. has repeatedly discouraged "teaching to the test," parents say classroom lessons and homework have gone from interesting projects and experiments to dull worksheets simulating test questions.
"I can't blame the teachers. They're doing what they have to to get a good evaluation," said Eric Mihelbergel, whose third- and sixth-grade daughters opted out in the Kenmore-Tonawanda district, near Buffalo.
He and others hope participation eventually will drop so low that the tests won't be of any use to the state. Already the tests are of no use to parents, critics say, because results are not available until summer and even then they don't specify where points were taken off and why.
"State assessments offer an opportunity for educators and parents to gauge the progress a child is making toward the standards. Why wouldn't a parent want to know how well his or her child is doing?" said Tom Dunn, spokesman for the Education Department.
In a letter to superintendents last week, King advised districts not to make student placement decisions or judge teachers based solely on the results. Only New York City uses the tests in deciding whether a student passes or fails a grade.
"There's a lot of fear about kids having to go to summer school, about failing," said Nancy Cauthen, part of New York City parent group, Change the Stakes. "For some parents, pulling their kids out of the tests is just a very protective action to keep their kids from having to experience all this destructive anxiety."
Less than a third of students in grade 3 through 8 passed - by meeting or exceeding a set standard - in English last year, when the tests were first based on the Common Core. The result was the same in math.
King has said no schools or districts were labeled failing because of the first round of tests. Last year's scores, he said, created a new baseline going forward.
The English tests wrap up today. Three-day math assessments begin April 30.