Opt-out for some, but not for all

With the election of Betty Rosa as NYS Board of Regents chancellor on Monday, coupled with standardized test season approaching, many parents and educators are refocusing on this year’s opt-out movement. I am one of those parents. But even without my mommy-hat on, this movement is clearly valuable as an effective tool for change and an alternative choice to a testing process that was not built for children with special needs.

These voices of dissent are directly responsible for the current attempt to readjust the Common Core standards and testing practices. In December 2015, Governor Cuomo’s Common Core Task Force brought forth recommendations for change within the Common Core standards and the accompanying Math and ELA tests. While the tests have been altered for 2016, many parents and teachers are less than satisfied.

The “new” tests, which begin on April 5th, will contain one less reading passage and one less response question for ELA, and four fewer multiple-choice math questions. Students will also have unlimited time to complete the tests, within reason. But the overall content of the tests will be the same and students will still sit for three days each of Math and ELA. NYSED will be working with teachers to develop new questions which will be tested in 2017, and if successful, implemented in new tests statewide in 2018. For us to see real change in testing, and hopefully in curriculum, we’ll have to wait two years.

Critics of the opt-out movement seem to (or pretend to) misunderstand the motives that drive it. Kate Taylor’s New York Times article highlights the various ways the NYC DoE is trying to tamp down the angry voices and opt-out sentiment heard from teachers and parents alike. Anita Skop, superintendent from Brooklyn’s District 15, implies that teachers are engaging in a political act by advising students to opt-out. I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. Teacher evaluations won’t be linked to test scores this year, so their stakeholder status has shifted away from self-preservation and moved towards protecting the children they serve. Don’t the very best of our teachers care about their students-- what they learn, what they’re exposed to? And might they even know what’s educationally appropriate? NYC Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña and Devora Kaye suggest that teachers and principals shouldn’t weigh-in on the issues with standardized tests. But if not them, then who?

Parents are taking it upon themselves to make the best decisions for their children, which means gathering information and assessing the risks and rewards for testing. Ms. Fariña said of parents, “I just think that what I’m hearing is that parents want more permission to opt out.” Well maybe she should get her hearing checked. I believe that parents want age-appropriate curriculums, less test-prep, and reasonable testing protocol. What they got was a shortened test that will generally be the same as last year’s. There has been no consideration for students with disabilities or English language learners, some of whom can’t possibly score as well as the general population, but are held to the same standards nonetheless. Parents can request a portfolio review, for promotion purposes or middle or high school admissions, in lieu of testing. Shouldn’t that be the norm for all students? A holistic evaluation that goes beyond a few narrowed measures?

The opt-out movement is prominent in Upstate New York and Long Island, with only 2% of NYC abstaining from the tests. The neighborhoods with the highest opt-out levels are economically advantaged, generally well-performing and predominately white. Threats of funding being withheld aren’t taken as seriously as they are in many of NYC’s Title I schools. Although no action has been taken on that front the threats are still there, directly mandated by the Feds and outlined in ESSA. Those schools have the greater struggle -- more challenges for teachers who are stretched too thin, and increased reliance on scant federal and state funding.

Those living in more affluent neighborhoods outside the city have another advantage. In many cases, parents have better options for their zoned middle and high schools. That isn’t always the case in NYC, and admittance to specialized and screened middle and high schools relies (sometimes heavily) on test scores. And so, even those that wish to opt-out in NYC are bound to test-taking in order to ensure their child has the best opportunities. That is why it remains important for activist parents in more affluent regions of the state to continue the opt-out movement. It’s easier to shout from a soapbox when you are in a position of privilege rather than when your hands are tied.

Charter school parents might prefer to opt their child out of the state tests, but if the opt-out movement permeated the charter sector authorizers would end up closing schools. Charter school renewals rely heavily on test scores. Where school leaders are given more autonomy, they are still bound to test-prep practices and stringent curriculum guides to ensure their scores are up to snuff. It’s a great example of golden handcuffs. In this respect, I hope the opt-out movement helps foster systemic change. If the Common Core standards are amended, and the tests follow suit, charter schools will be able to regain some of the flexibility they have lost.

I believe standardized tests hold value when used properly, but the current tests don’t have much value for teachers or students. Teachers aren’t given test results until after their students move onto the next grade. Even then, they can’t track where students excelled and where they struggled. The week or more used for testing, in addition to the weeks (or months) of test prep, is considered to be a waste of valuable instruction time by teachers. And it certainly raises anxiety levels for the students. The current tests seem to only indicate which schools are “failing” and which are succeeding. But low test scores, especially here in NYC, are generally indicators of poverty. And the schools that do manage impressive gains in test scores usually emphasize no-excuses and extreme test-prep policies and procedures. How do either of these equate to a quality education?

Maybe, instead of blaming teachers for poor student performance, we should start adequately funding our public schools, including resources to lift communities out of poverty. Maybe, instead of forcing tests that don’t inform teachers on how to help their students, we become adamant about using multiple measures to gauge progress. A number is just a number, and in this case, the number is meaningless to those we are trying to serve.

Amanda Lefer, Family and Community Outreach Associate at C3S


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