The DNAinfo archives brought to you by WNYC.
Read the press release here.

Principals Pressure Families Not To Opt Out of State Tests

By Amy Zimmer | April 13, 2015 6:08pm
  Isabelle Leguelinel, a P.S. 321 student, protesting last year's state English exams.
Isabelle Leguelinel, a P.S. 321 student, protesting last year's state English exams.
View Full Caption
DNAinfo/Amy Zimmer

BROOKLYN — As more families join a movement to opt-out of high-stakes state tests, some principals have been ratcheting up their pressure to quell it, claiming — often falsely — that avoiding the test could hurt their schools, according to parent advocates.

A number of schools have been pushing back against the growing number of parents expected to opt out of this year's state exams, including the state English exams for city students in third to eighth grades that kick off Tuesday, parents and advocates told DNAinfo.

The number of test-refusers was 1,925 last year and is expected to jump even more this year.

Frank Giordano, principal of New Voices School of Academic and Creative Arts, a selective school on 18th Street in South Slope, warned parents, "There is no opting out of any State Exams," in a note to parents that was shared with DNAinfo.

"As an educator, I know that these exams are not an effective [or] reliable method for assessing or evaluating a child's academic strengths and weaknesses,"said Rosalina Diaz, whose daughter Marina will be opting out of the state tests. Diaz, a professor of education and former public school teacher, believes they are "more indicative of poverty than teacher or school quality."
View Full Caption
Rosalina Diaz

At a subsequent meeting to discuss the issue, Giordano then told parents he could not provide kids with accommodations during test time if they opted out, according to Rosalina Diaz, a Midwood mom of a sixth-grader, who planned to opt her daughter out.

Diaz — an education professor at Medgar Evers College, former member of her district's Community Education Council and 17-year veteran public school teacher — knew her principal was spreading misinformation.

"I was familiar with the DOE regulations and that they stated that children could engage in silent reading during the exams," Diaz said.

So, Diaz went to her district's superintendent to make sure that her daughter would be allowed to opt out and wouldn't have to spend hours just sitting and staring at a wall while doing so, she said.

New Voices' principal did not immediately respond for comment.

The numbers of students opting out are expected to skyrocket because parent ire over Gov. Andrew Cuomo's recently passed state budget — which gives state tests more weight on teacher evaluations — has swelled.

The changes to teacher evaluations, however, also have principals concerned over what it means for their staffs, since they will have less control over grading their educators. (Principal observations currently count for 60 percent of a teacher's grade and could drop to 15 percent of the rating.)

"The Chancellor and our Superintendent want to remind families that the NYC DOE does not encourage opting-out and there is no formal way to do this," the principal of the high-performing Park Slope middle school M.S. 51 wrote to parents.

"Schools are in a very precarious situation in regards testing politics," the principal wrote, adding that refusing to take the exams "may have a negative impact on a student’s high school admissions, teachers’ evaluations and the school evaluation."

Nancy Cauthen, a Washington Heights mom and member of opt out advocacy group Change the Stakes, said there's "no clear procedure" on how to opt out, noting that the Department of Education suggests principals "offer" to meet with families to "discuss their concerns."

But some parents who have been called in for such meetings have felt bullied by principals to sit for the tests, Cauthen said.

"An awful lot of parents don't even know they can refuse the test," she said, adding that "the information is somewhat ambiguous. Principals are interpreting it in a variety of ways."

While some schools like M.S. 51 and New Voices seem to be taking a hard line against test refusers, the overwhelming majority of students at schools like Carroll Garden's Brooklyn New School and the East Village's Earth School won't be taking the tests, said Megan Devir, a parent and advocate with NYC Opt Out, which has been collecting numbers of families opting out across the city.

Then there are schools like Park Slope's P.S. 321, where Devir's twin girls are in third grade. The principal at that well-regarded school hasn't endorsed or encouraged the idea of opting out, but has allowed parents to organize around the issue.

"We have ended up with a 35 percent opt-out rate," Devir said, "with over 245 refusal letters in, as opposed to just a handful last year."

While more affluent schools have been leading the opt out charge, parent advocates said they've seen a jump this year in inquiries from lower-income neighborhoods in the Bronx and schools in Queens with large percentages of English Language Learners.

While a message from Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña did not necessarily condone opting out, she did say schools did have to respect parents' decisions.

"As you lead your communities and administer this year’s State tests, I want to reiterate the value they provide to students, families, school staff and the city as a whole," Schools Fariña wrote in a memo to principals.

But she added: "For families that ultimately choose to opt-out, I ask that you respect their decision and work to provide those students with an alternative educational activity, such as independent reading."