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Hoax Letter Sent to Schools Encourages Parents to Opt Out of Testing

By Amy Zimmer | June 6, 2013 7:26am
 A letter supposedly from education officials gave instructions about opting out of field testing. But it was a hoax.
A letter supposedly from education officials gave instructions about opting out of field testing. But it was a hoax.
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DNAinfo/Sonja Sharp

BROOKLYN — Rebecca Herz was relieved to receive a letter from the principal of Prospect Height's P.S. 9 letting parents know they could opt their kids out of this week's field tests.

Herz did not want her fifth-grade daughter sitting for the exam, which wouldn't count for the school's evaluations but would try out questions on kids to help testing giant Pearson develop future exams.

"The testing industry's making millions, if not billions, of dollars off of testing," Herz said. "I would guess my daughter has spent 100 hours sitting in front of bubble tests this year, including test prep. Instead of going outside, they're asked to spend an hour more sitting in front of a bubble test."

But now, the principal will no longer be able to honor the requests of some 125 out of 150 families who said they wanted to opt out of the field tests, according to Jane Harnick, a P.S. 9 parent leading the charge against high-stakes testing there.

The principal had sent the letter after receiving one on New York State Education Department letterhead with instructions on how to tell parents they can opt out.

That official-looking letter, however, turned out to be a hoax. Education officials said they don't know where the phony letter originated, but they are investigating.

"There is not an opt-out provision from the state assessment system," said Tom Dunn, a spokesman for the New York State Education Department.

The department alerted school districts to the hoax last week, he said.

"We don’t know who sent the letter but we are looking into it," said Erin Hughes, a spokeswoman for the city's Department of Education.

The letter from the principal of P.S. 9, dated May 28, explained that field tests were used by "commercial publishers" to develop future tests that "do not count for the children or the school" and said the choice to take them was up to the parents.

The principal — who did not respond for comment — was in the midst of drafting a new letter Wednesday telling parents their kids would have to take the exam after all, Harnick said.

"These parents don't want their kids to be tested, especially not on field tests," Harnick said. "[Pearson is] just using our kids as unpaid guinea pigs."

Parents across the city planned to boycott this week's field tests, joining others who took their kids out of standardized tests given earlier this year.

They've been emboldened by groups like Change the Stakes, which is holding an event Thursday on the steps of City Hall presenting a mock invoice to Pearson, which has a $32 million contract to design New York state exams.

"In some ways there was a positive force behind [the hoax] in that it did bring more awareness to the issues," said Janine Sopp, one of the parent co-founders of Change the Stakes, who also didn't know who was behind the letter.

"Most parents are not aware that these field tests are happening," said Sopp, a Kensington resident with a fourth grader at Cobble Hill's Brooklyn New School. "For whatever reason the state doesn't feel they need to let us know. ...They're treating our children as if it's a game instead of publicizing about who is profiting on the backs of our kids."

High-stakes testing was taking a toll on the peers of Herz's daughter and third-grade son, she said.  Her daughter said some kids were in tears when taking exams in April, and her son has classmates losing sleep and appetites.

"There are kids in my son's class who developed chronic stomach aches leading up to the test," she said.

Herz did not opt out her kids for other exams this year because she and other like-minded parents at the school feared that boycotting could hurt P.S. 9, since some of their kids were potentially high-scoring students.

"But I wanted to opt my daughter out of the field tests because it's my understanding there's no repercussion for the school," said Herz, who plans to have her daughter sit out the test regardless of the principal's new letter.