MANHATTAN — Testing season kicks off next week for the more than 400,000 third through eighth graders in city schools, as a growing number of parents are considering whether to opt their kids out of the high-pressure tests.
Fewer than 3 percent of students opted out of last year’s tests, according to the Department of Education. Still, the nearly 13,000 kids who refused last year’s tests were up significantly from about 8,000 the year before.
The city has tried to tamp down the controversy over the exams, which many parents see as influencing curriculum to teach to the test rather than to encourage real learning.
But many parents complain that principals are continuing to pressure them by threatening that there will be ramifications — often erroneously — for their children and schools if their kids refuse to take the tests, advocates say.
Day 1 of the three-day state English exams begins Tuesday. The math exams follow on May 2.
Here are the most common myths and truths about the impact of opting out on students and schools:
1. Students have a right to opt out: TRUE
The DOE continues to emphasize the importance of the tests — even though at a closed-door meeting with Brooklyn parents last year, Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said she’d opt out if she had a child with special needs.
“We believe that multiple measures, including classwork, course grades and projects are essential when evaluating students,” DOE spokeswoman Toya Holness said. “The state has made important changes to these exams that address legitimate concerns from families including fewer questions and unlimited time as long as students are working productively. It is important for students to take these assessments to ensure we’re on the right track and improve instruction.”
The state requires that schools offer the exams — but students aren’t required to take them, City Councilman Brad Lander says.
“It is your decision as a parent whether your child will take the NYS tests or opt out,” Lander wrote in a letter to his district, spanning from Boerum Hill and Red Hook to Park Slope and Sunset Park, but ... “Students who do not take the tests are not subject to any penalty or disciplinary action, and an appropriate learning alternative will be offered to students whose parents opt them out of the tests.”
Still, several families have said they received letters pressuring them against opting out, leaders of the grassroots NYC Opt Out group said.
The letters often cite city information from the DOE’s parent guide on the state tests, which states that if less than 95 percent of students or one or more of its sub-groups (like students with disabilities or black students) fail to take the exams, the school is deemed having failed to make “adequate yearly progress.”
If this happens for three years, the school is identified as a “local assistance plan” school, which means it’s not considered in “good standing” and generally has to submit additional reporting and self-review requirements, according to the letters.
2. Middle and high schools base admissions solely on test scores: FALSE
One of the reasons that opt out numbers are smaller in the city than statewide — where more than 200,000 children opted out — is because some families here worry that their kids need the test scores from fourth or seventh grade to ensure they get into super-competitive middle and high schools.
While some middle and high schools use the state tests as a factor for admissions, schools are not allowed to use tests as the sole factor, or even the primary factor, for acceptance, DOE officials said.
“While State test scores may be considered, they may not be the primary or major factor in promotion decisions,” the city’s FAQ states. “Students may not be penalized or retained in the same grade solely for not taking a State test.”
In fact, many elite schools accept students who have opted out, parents said.
“My son has opted out since fourth grade,” Earth School teacher Jia Lee said. “He got into his first middle school choice and his first high school choice. They looked beyond the test scores.”
Schools have long accepted students from private schools or abroad that don’t take state tests, she added.
Notably, the state’s rule prohibiting test scores for promotion and placement will end in 2018, advocates said.
3. Schools will be significantly affected if their students opt out: FALSE
Two schools were designated “Local Assistance Plan” schools this year, DOE officials noted, the East Village’s Earth School and Tompkins Square Middle School.
The schools said, however, that designation has not hurt them.
“We’re not worried about it,” said Lee, explaining that her school has a good relationship with its superintendent and is very transparent about the work their students are doing and how they are assessed beyond the state tests.
“We use a lot more qualitative measures and we work really closely with our families to understand what it means to assess students. We are whole child-learning,” explained Lee, whose progressive school not only looks at growth when it comes to math and literacy but also focuses on social emotional development. “Our families also provide us with a lot of information about what kind of learners their children are.”
Her school — where about 70 percent of families opted out last year — is planning next year to pilot an alternative assessment program developed by the Brooklyn New School, where students give course-work related presentations that are evaluated by a panel of adults, including teachers, staff and parents.
“It’s a lot of in-depth work and a lot of work beyond our regular contractual hours,” Lee said of the school, which is part of the PROSE network that allows it to skirt certain union rules.
4. Schools have had funding taken away because of opt out rates: FALSE
The Local Assistance Plan designation does not cause a school to lose funds, DOE officials said.
On the contrary, Lee noted that her school is owed money from the state because of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit, which ruled 10 years ago that Albany has to pony up more money for city schools — which it has yet to do.
“Our school is owed over $700,000 from CFE funds that we haven’t seen in 10 years,” she said. “That’s where the injustice is — having these accountability measures without funding our schools properly.”
However, the state does offer plaques and limited grant opportunities to high-performing “Rewards” schools based on test scores — and any school with with too-high opt out rates aren’t eligible to be considered.
Fifteen such schools weren’t able to receive such plaques last year because of their opt out rates, including Forest Hills’ P.S. 196, the Upper West Side’s P.S. 87, the Battery Park City School, Brooklyn Height’s P.S. 8 and the Upper East Side’s P.S. 290.
There’s also a heightened fear that under U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos low test scores — which disproportionately affect low-income students — will justify reforms to take funding from public schools in favor of vouchers. But the federal budget is still up in the air, making it too soon to tell whether that could happen.
5. High-stakes tests affect classroom curriculum: TRUE
At the Brooklyn New School in Carroll Gardens, where roughly 95 percent of families opted out last year, parents have been debating the pros and cons of the state exams at a series of events that included sample test questions.
“Parents should understand how standardized tests affect instruction and that ‘teaching to the test’ is a recent educational concept,” Brooklyn New School principal Anna Allanbrook wrote to parents this week, noting that her school does not do any test prep, which she said was “a practice practically unique to our school.”
In schools that are focused on achieving high scores on the state tests, she said, the curriculum becomes geared towards test day at the expense of deeper learning.
“Let’s remember the true purpose of elementary schools: the foundational development of youngsters so they can become thoughtful citizens of tomorrow: the kind of folks who can ask questions, think through a big idea and take appropriate action such as choosing whether or not to participate in the standardized testing industry,” she wrote.
Schools across the city have been prepping kids in the weeks leading up to next week's tests — if not longer.
The high-scoring Success Academy charter network is holding a “Slam the Exam” pep rally at Radio City Music Hall on Friday, with student dance performances and an awards presentation for excellence and growth on the exams.
Many parents say they believe that too much class time and too much of their schools’ scarce funds are being devoted to test prep and materials at the expense of a more well-rounded education that includes the arts and sciences.
6. State tests are used in teacher evaluations: FALSE
There’s a moratorium through the 2019-2020 school year on using the state tests to evaluate teachers. After that, however, the law will allow teacher evaluations to be largely based on the exam scores.
In the meantime, the city is overhauling how teacher evaluations are done and will be piloting a model that incorporates project-based assessments.
The city’s teachers’ union hopes the state will consider the city’s approach when the moratorium expires.