boycott

Small but determined band of families sitting out the state tests

A Change the Stakes flyer explaining how families can opt out of tests. (Click to enlarge)

At least a handful of the students who are supposed to sit down Tuesday morning for the first day of state testing already know that they will be absent.

That’s because a small number of parents are boycotting this year’s state tests, choosing to keep their children home or away from class out of protest against the tests’ growing importance.

Test scores have long been used to judge students’ readiness for the next grade. And for the last several years, the city has rated each school based in large part on how students perform on state tests. But this year, the test scores could end up being used to rate teachers, too, if the city adopts new teacher evaluations as mandated by state law. This year’s tests are also longer than ever: about 300 minutes for each grade, more than twice what some students spent on testing in the past.

Last year, the Grassroots Education Movement, traditionally an outlet for activist teachers, launched a campaign to draw attention to — and, ideally, lower — those stakes. The parents who are opting out of the tests are part of GEM’s “Change the Stakes” committee, which is holding a forum on high-stakes testing Tuesday evening.

Only a few parents have committed to keeping their children out of the tests, but they say they are willing to go it alone to raise awareness about the pressure that students and schools are under.

Janine Sopp said her daughter came home from second grade at Williamsburg’s P.S. 132 last year petrified of the testing that older students had undergone. The school had seen its city grade drop precipitously and needed scores to improve in order to escape sanctions.

“They were in this incredible panic mode that put them in test prep since September,” Sopp said. “The impact on the school was not just on the children who were being tested but on everyone.”

So she transferred her daughter to the Brooklyn New School, a progressive school where test scores are not emphasized. This week, Kya will be helping out in a kindergarten classroom instead of bubbling in answers on the state reading test.

“Of course I’m nervous because it’s not the status quo,” Sopp said. “But I talked to the principal and AP and they ran it past our district testing coordinator. … We’re all walking into uncharted territory so we’re all a bit apprehensive about how this will play out.”

The consequences of skipping the test can be steep. Fourth- and seventh-grade scores factor into students’ middle and high school admissions. At a panel on high-stakes testing last month at Sopp’s school, Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky said students who did not have scores would be judged according to a portfolio of work instead — a far more subjective measure at a critical moment.

Plus, the state requires schools to test at least 95 percent of students — and 95 percent of various subgroups, as well, such as students with disabilities or African-American students. If too few students sit for the tests, a school would not hit its required benchmarks under the No Child Left Behind, potentially triggering consequences that could culminate in closure.

In some states, such as Pennsylvania and California, a formal procedure exists for parents who wish to opt out of state testing, according to the Change the Stakes campaign. But in New York City, decisions are being made on an ad hoc basis.

Andrea Mata said there was “anxiety” and “confusion about to even go about doing it” when she told her principal that the family wouldn’t be taking part in this year’s testing. Mata’s son is in third grade at P.S./I.S. 210, a Washington Heights school that offers instruction in two languages and enrolls many Spanish-speaking students. The school can be penalized when those students score below grade level, even when the students are so new to the country that they cannot be held back because of poor performance.

“We’re less than 24 hours away and we still don’t know whether he will attend school [or] if other arrangements will be made for him,” said Mata, who joined Change the Stakes after hearing a GEM member describe the campaign on the radio last year. ‘There’s not really any clear guidance on it.”

Robert Kulesz has decided just to keep his son home during the mornings this week: He’ll arrive at his Astoria elementary school after the day’s testing is complete. Kulesz said his main objection is not the pressure that children are under but that schools are putting test prep ahead of other important elements of a well rounded education.

“They spend more time on this test prep than they spend on art or music or any of that stuff,” Kulesz said, adding that the school had sent home test prep books that cost $13 each but solicited donations for art supplies for class projects. “There’s just something wrong with that.”

Explaining the boycott to their children has been a challenge for some of the families.

“My child feels a little strange because he knows this is something that his entire class is doing,” Mata said. “He still may end up taking the math section as a compromise because he really loves math, but he’s definitely not taking the [English language arts] and he’s okay with that.”

Some parents are taking a less dramatic approach to protest against state testing. Liz Rosenberg, a Brooklyn mother, is asking fellow parents to tell true stories about the effects of testing on her new website, NYC Public.

Lori Chajet, a parent and education researcher who recently wrote about her work around college readiness for GothamSchools, launched a petition on Change.org against the state’s “high-stakes testing madness.” The petition has more than 300 signatures and comments from dozens of parents and teachers.

“I can see that the pressure is not good for my eight-year-old,” wrote David Ricceri, the father of a third-grader, in response to the petition. “The packet of homework we got over the Easter break was crazy!! He had thirteen one-page [stories] to read and answer the questions to (about 7 questions on average). Thirteen pages of math, and 40 minutes of reading each day!

“This is a third-grader we are talking about. I believe with all the crazy pressure he’s under that it’s my job to make sure he has time to daydream, invent and play, but with all this work hanging over us it never feels like enough.”

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.