In a meeting that overflowed with vehement opinions on both sides of the issue, the St. Michael-Albertville school board opted not to approve a proposed addition to Policy 618: Assessment of Student Achievement, which would have mandated locally-selected standardized tests such as DIBELS and NWEA-MAP testing, leaving parents without the ability to opt their child out of such exams.
With two board members (Jeff Lindquist and Carol Steffens) in favor of granting approval for the policy addition, two (Doug Birk and Jennifer Peyerl) against it, one member absent (Drew Scherber) and one more wavering (Gayle Weber), the board had to go back to Weber to find out her final opinion. In the end, Weber said she didn’t “want to take away a parent’s right to opt their child out.” With that, the board knew they would not have enough votes to approve the policy addition and chose not to act on it.
Superintendent Dr. Jim Behle initially proposed this policy addition at the first meeting in January, and the board said they received dozens of emails on the issue in the two weeks leading up the last Tuesday’s meeting, which began with nearly an hour of visitor’s comments, both on this issue and on the possible bond referendum which would include a second sheet of ice. The local ABC news was on site for the meeting, where commenters expressed near unanimous disdain for the proposed policy addition.
Commenters most frequently expressed frustration at what they perceive to be an intrusion on parental rights. They questioned the legal standing of such an action, with one speaker noting “an absence of a law doesn’t mean the absence of a right.”
Speakers also bemoaned what they feel is an increasing focus on standardized testing in the STMA school district, with one parent noting she has seen marked changes in focus on these tests between her first child’s education and her fourth. Indeed, the school district made it their core mission several years ago to raise student test scores so that the district ranks in the top 15 percentile in the state on standardized exams.
In addition to the 20 or so speakers at the meeting, board chair Birk said they received dozens of emails, with many of them displaying a level of vitriol he said the board has never experienced from the community before. Board members expressed sadness and concern that many of the emails lacked the civility they had come to expect from the St. Michael-Albertville community.
Despite three board members ultimately deciding they could not support the proposed policy addition, all board members expressed varying levels of dismay, confusion or even frustration at the some of the communication they received. They told attendees said there is no conspiracy to usurp more and more parental control away from parents, as some communication suggested. Rather, they billed themselves simply as regular community members who care about education and try to make the best decisions they can to help students succeed. Some board members said they feel some comments they received were “exaggerated and misunderstood,” and that they and that the board and district’s intentions are pure to help students achieve academic success.
Board member Jeff Lindquist said his research leads him to believe that local parents are reacting so strongly against this proposal not just out of disdain for this particular policy suggestion, but out of frustration about standardized testing and government standards in general, just as much as they are frustrated about parent rights. These standards and benchmarks have become prominent fixtures in American education since the passing of No Child Left Behind in the early 2000s.
“Those are very important issues, and they raise legitimate questions and concerns regarding the quality and quantity of standardized testing,” he said. Lindquist said he believes the appropriate bodies of government should be looking at this issue and making reforms where necessary.
However, the board meeting agenda item has a much narrower focus, he said, and that is to determine if parents should be able to opt their child out of every standardized test. For his part, Lindquist said he trusted the school district is trying to do the best thing for children and doesn’t believe this narrow issue should be the focus in a much broader debate on standardized testing.
Board chair Doug Birk agreed, but said he feels that parents should be able to maintain that freedom as long as teachers and staff feel they can accommodate the opted-out students during test times.
For superintendent Jim Behle’s part, he explained his reasoning for proposing the addition to this policy as an effort to give teachers the tools they need to make the best educational decisions possible. He likened the different forms of assessing students as all part of a photo album that, taken as a whole, tells the story of a child’s academic progress. Some photos are more informal, he said, such as teacher evaluations, unit or chapter tests or grading assignments. And others are more formal, such as the standardized tests.
“We never rely upon one piece of information so we always have the most complete picture of the child,” Behle said. “I believe the purpose of this policy is to ensure that teachers have the most complete set of tools to make the best choices on what to teach and how to teach it.”