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Brooklyn Elementary School Creates Test Alternative to Assess Students

By Amy Zimmer | June 7, 2016 7:13am
 Anna Allanbrook, principal of Carroll Gardens' Brooklyn New School, where 95 percent of families opted out this year.
Anna Allanbrook, principal of Carroll Gardens' Brooklyn New School, where 95 percent of families opted out this year.
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DNAinfo/Nikita Venugopal

BROOKLYN — The Brooklyn New School, a progressive lottery-based elementary school in Carroll Gardens, has taken a stance against the state’s standardized math and English tests: Roughly 95 percent of its families opted out this year.

While the school — which is one of the city’s most sought after — has made clear that it opposes standardized tests, it’s now working on clarifying what it supports when it comes to measuring student progress, principal Anna Allanbrook said.

So, BNS is piloting performance-based assessments, where students give presentations that are evaluated by a panel of adults, made up of BNS teachers, staff and parents (who do not evaluate their own kids).

While several New York City high schools use performance-based assessments (often in lieu of the Regents tests, thanks to a waiver from the state) BNS is the first known city elementary school developing such an alternative system.

“We came up with this because we want to have something that reflected what we valued. We’re always saying we don’t value the state tests. So, what is it that we do value?” Allanbrook said. “We’ve always emphasized talking about your work and knowing a topic deeply.”

The students give presentations based on the topics their grade covers. Third graders, for instance, study China. Fourth graders study the Lenape and New Amsterdam. Fifth graders focus on Mayan culture.

Last year, the school piloted the assessments for 10 students in fourth and fifth grade. This year, the school’s entire third and fifth grade recently completed their assessments, while the fourth graders are set to present this week. 

The system is still a work-in-progress, she noted.

The biggest challenge is figuring out how to use the rubric the school created for the student’s evaluation. At present, students are not given a grade, but are given a qualitative assessment.

Also, unlike a standardized test, which grades students on a continuum compared to how others score, the BNS approach has been to evaluate the child in relation to themselves.

For instance, a third grader who doesn’t speak well gave a presentation that made the school proud of his growth. That student, however, would not have done well if his presentation was compared to others, Allanbrook said.

“We are still thinking about this," Allanbrook said. "It’s not over.”

Kathryn Krase, a Gowanus resident with a third grader at BNS, thought the assessments were an “extremely powerful” tool.

Krase's son has a visual impairment that affected his ability to learn letters and tired his eyes while reading. She knew that standardized tests weren't going to reveal much about his ability to understand and master content.

The performance-based assessment, on the other hand, was “tremendous” for him, and Krase — a college educator who served as a panelist for other students' presentations — was impressed by other kids, too.

“To me, the awesome thing was to see the spectrum and appreciate the difference of children’s learning styles,” she said of the third graders, who studied China. “There were some who knew everything about the history of Confucius and could tell you all about a Scholars Garden and others who loved to explain their process [of working on their projects]. One kid built a terraced farming system, and he was able to explain it historically, but what interested him more was the mechanics.”

She also appreciated that the students were learning to speak publicly — which could only help prepare them for applying to junior high, where many schools require interviews.

Krase acknowledged that public speaking may not be easy for elementary school kids. But at BNS, where students call teachers by their first names, there’s less of a “hierarchy” than at traditional schools, she said, and students seem to have an easier time engaging with adults “on another level,” she believes.

BNS does not have immediate plans to seek a waiver from the state to use their assessments in place of state tests, Allanbrook said, but she noted that, eventually, "it could be a goal.”

Allanbrook remained uncertain whether her school will soon face ramifications from the state because of its high opt-out rates.

Schools that have less than 95 percent participation rates in state tests for three years could be seen as failing to make “adequate yearly progress” and deemed not “in good standing,” according to city and state officials. Such schools are generally subject to additional reporting and self-review requirements, according to city and state officials.

“This is my third year with a high opt-out rate,” Allanbrook said. “I’m wondering next year if I’ll not be in ‘good standing.’”