Co-Writer Kemala Karmen
Deputy Director, Co Founder NYC Public
With more than 200,000 students — or nearly 1 in 5 of all eligible test takers–refusing to sit for annual standardized tests, New York State made headlines last spring for leading the nation in sheer number of opt outs. The parent-led opt out movement worked hard to get those numbers, getting an unexpected boost from voters disgusted by Governor Andrew Cuomo’s hubristic overreach in pushing the Education Transformation Act of 2015. (The legislation proposed that as much as fifty percent of a teacher’s evaluation would hinge on test score “growth.”) However, if you take even the tiniest of peeks at the distribution of those opt out numbers, one thing will immediately become apparent: New York City, with a test refusal rate of only 1.4%, is not keeping up with the pack. Why? What’s going on?
As parents of New York City public school children, we can tell you. And it’s not pretty. Whether you are a parent in a “high performing” school with plenty of middle and upper class children or a parent with a child in a “low performing” school with a population weighed down by the stresses of poverty, there is a powerful deterrent custom-made for you when it comes to making the decision of whether or not to allow a child to take the tests.
The most dire of threats, school closure, falls heavily on the city’s 94 Renewal Schools. These schools, which serve predominantly low-income, minority, and immigrant communities, receive the “Renewal” designation largely due to their poor showing on state tests. (Graduation rates come into play for high schools.) When the de Blasio/Fariña administration introduced the Renewal Program, which is supposed to pump resources into struggling schools, it was positioned as an alternative to the unpopular school closure policy favored by Bloomberg/Klein. But a school can only be removed from the program through an improvement in test scores–on the same disastrous state tests that have been roundly criticized by parents, teachers, administrators, and now, even Governor Cuomo’s own Common Core Task Force. Parents are scared of losing their schools completely, whether to charterization or state receivership, and the test-based exit criteria pressures them into seeing testing as essential for school survival. In an effort to raise those scores come hell or high water, children who need so much more than drill-and-test are fed the narrowest test-prep workbook curriculum.
The gravest impediment to opt out that the NYC Department of Education hangs over the heads of parents and children in other communities is the middle school and high school admissions process. Unlike elsewhere in the state, New York City has a complicated, and medical-school-competitive, admissions model. (The comparison to medical school is no exaggeration; New York hired the same team who designed the system that matches medical school students to residencies to design the system that matches teenage students to high schools.) Although state law now precludes test scores from being the sole or primary factor in a school’s admission formula, the city still sends student scores to the receiving institutions. This makes parents distrust even those schools who say they don’t consider test scores at all. After all, if the score is right there in front of the admissions team, what’s to stop them from looking and using it to make shorthand determinations about the student? Moreover, admissions rules seem to be constantly changing and no one knows what the future will bring. Currently, in all but a few instances, only 4th grade and 7th grade scores are used, respectively, for middle school and high school admissions, but will the rules change? Every principal will tell you there’s no way to know. Getting into the school that is a good match for your child is on the minds of parents from the moment their children hit the 3rd grade, so the fear around this issue is enough to make any parent pause–and to make many of them think, well, even if only 4th grade counts, to be safe, I probably should have my 8 year old take the third grade test as practice. Ditto, the 5th and 6th grade tests, because 7th grade is the admissions ticket. As for 8th grade, that’s practice for the new, more stringent, high school Regents exams. There are no avenues for discussion here. In many districts, there is no neighborhood middle school that you can fall back on, and few zoned high schools remain. It’s school roulette, and the NYCDOE holds all the cards.
In much of the state, parents were motivated to opt out because they wanted to protect their beloved teachers. They reasoned that refusing the tests would mean there would be no spurious data for test-based teacher evaluations. (Note: No parent we know is saying, “Don’t evaluate our teachers”–just don’t evaluate them via this discredited test-based model.) But here in the city, Chancellor Fariña has stated that growth in test scores should weigh 30% or more in teacher evaluations. Indeed, in some ways the city has outdone the state in tying scores to evaluation: the state sets a threshold of 16 scores before it assigns a teacher rating; in the city a mere 6 scores is considered a sufficient sample for both the state and local “measures.” Six scores is three students taking both the English and Math exams. Imagine: a teacher may have a classroom of 32 kids (the contractual limit for elementary school), but have the lion’s share of their evaluation based on how three children perform. This understandably makes teachers nervous about who those three children might be and families may feel that burden as they weigh test refusal.
Finally, a gag order threat hangs over teachers and principals. They are not allowed to speak to parents about opt out. They can offer no insight into the tests themselves, they cannot advise you if the tests are inappropriate for your child, they can only ask you what you want to do. In many instances teachers and administrators don’t have accurate information themselves on the viability of opt out, so they repeat the lines given them by the NYCDOE: Take the tests! There is a crackdown going on right now to try and strangle the New York City opt out community entirely. Teachers and principals are threatened with being labeled insubordinate if they speak the truth about testing. If they make any attempt to protect children from the abuses of these tests, their careers hang in the balance. This goes for principals as well as teachers. Watch as Anita Skop, Superintendent of Schools in Brooklyn’s District 15, clearly following Chancellor’s orders, explains to parents that under no circumstances should teachers or principals speak with parents about their concerns regarding the tests.
There are no protections here, no local school board or activist union to shield teachers and parents from the wrath of city government. Cross the line and there can be consequences, albeit vague and opaque in nature. And all of this is coming from the allegedly progressive, education-savvy Mayor Bill de Blasio and his handpicked Chancellor Carmen Fariña. Parents are being denied their rights, educators are being silenced, and it’s the kids who suffer.