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A column by Herkimer BOCES District Superintendent Mark Vivacqua
on state test opt-outs in Herkimer County

April 17, 2015


While there are no official numbers at this point, Herkimer County schools had among the highest test refusal percentages in all of New York, or perhaps the single highest. I state this as neither a source of pride nor shame, but the matter is certainly worthy of some thoughtful deliberation. In the interest of full disclosure, I am a proponent of the Common Core Standards, and I am not a fan of test refusal. At the same time, I am a believer in democracy and that governmental policy being challenged by the will of the people through civil disobedience is what makes us great as a nation and a state. My concern, therefore, is not that the current educational policies are in jeopardy. If they are, so be it. My concern is what comes next.

I was born and raised in Herkimer County and have worked within its schools for 30 of my 32 years in education. My high school diploma from Frankfort-Schuyler was a foundation that prepared me very well for an undergraduate college experience and eventually three advanced degrees. My parents, as parents of many readers of this column, did not have the opportunity to attend college themselves, but had the benefit of a living wage from the manufacturing sector, and a great work ethic. I was fortunate to attend college at a time when, if you had a full-time job at minimum wage at Melrose Supermarket as I did, you could pay for your entire undergraduate degree without a single loan. Our county was not wealthy but thriving, our parents not highly educated but willing to work for more opportunities for their children. Our schools were not the highest achieving in the state, but better than average, and that was enough to propel the willing to go further. Many of those willing took their degrees and went further. Farther away from home.

The Herkimer County of my youth is not the Herkimer County of today. Poverty is increasing at an alarming rate, with more than half of the children in our schools receiving assistance. Our academic outcome measures currently fall below the state average, and graduation rates sometimes slip below average as well. Of the last class cohort measured, 56 percent went to college. That is, of 923 students, 520 enrolled in a postsecondary program. Of that number, 20 percent quit before their sophomore year.

Economically, all is not bleak. Far from it. Some jobs go unfilled because of an inability to find qualified employees. Just west, a $1.5 billion investment in computer chip commercialization will bring with it $136 million in annual salaries. Next door, a 450-acre greenfield site being developed for the semiconductor industry that would bring thousands more jobs in chip fabrication, to say nothing of related business and increased demand for service industry jobs. Will Herkimer County benefit from this development or will it sit idly by? A big part of the answer is in education. Education to prepare our own students for these jobs, the “native pipeline,” not only science-related, but trade and service careers as well. Education also for the purpose of attracting new citizens to our community to add to its tax base. Nano-transplants will want to move their families to communities in which they are assured a quality education for their children.

So the rest of the state knows what Herkimer County stands against: standardized testing and the Common Core. But what does Herkimer County stand for? It had better not be lower standards and expectations, a less educated citizenry, or a completely stress-free environment for our students. If so, we will be a desert between the economic oasis to our west in Oneida County, and the other to our east in the Capitol/Saratoga area. It is incumbent upon all of us to make clear what kind of education we want for our children, and particularly upon those who spoke the loudest about what they do not want.
   
 
Dr. Mark Vivacqua is the district superintendent of Herkimer-Fulton-Hamilton-Otsego BOCES




 
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