Teachers Take on Testing

As opt-out movement builds among parents, educators play a growing role

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Takiema Smith, a parent at the Brooklyn New School, opted her child out of state exams in 2014.

For Jia Lee, a critic of the state’s standardized tests who teaches at the Earth School and has a son there, the decision to opt her child out of this year’s exams was a “no-brainer.”

But Lee felt she could do more, so she and two of her colleagues at the East Village public school decided to refuse to administer this year’s state tests.

The teachers had already drafted a letter to the schools chancellor explaining their decision when they were called into their school office last week. Enough families had opted their children out of the tests, the teachers were told, that they did not need to proctor the exam — the teachers’ planned boycott was trumped by their students’. So on Tuesday, the first of six state-exam days, all but a handful of Lee’s students worked on a project about immigration instead of taking the test.

As the number of parents who opt out their children grows, and as test scores play a role in teacher evaluations for the first time, educators like Lee are being drawn into their protest. Some are simply providing logistical information to parents; others are sharing their concerns about over-testing; and still others, including Lee, are opting out their own children or, in some cases, even encouraging other parents to.

“We’re hoping that more teachers will realize that there’s empowerment in saying, ‘We don’t want to be a part of this,’” Lee said.

The number of city families opting out of state tests this year is poised to hit a record high, one year after new tests tied to the Common Core standards resulted in vastly lower scores. While just 276 students opted out citywide last year, nearly 640 students have already opted out this year just among six schools in Brooklyn and Manhattan, according to parents and teachers. The advocacy group Change the Stakes estimates that 1,000 students or more may decline to take this year’s test — a tiny portion of the city’s test-takers, but a huge increase from years past.

Many families are opting out despite pushback from their schools. At least 50 parents told Change the Stakes that school administrators discouraged them or told them children who skip the tests might be penalized, according to parent leader Nancy Cauthen. Responding to the growing tension within schools, Chancellor Carmen Fariña — who herself has expressed reservations about test boycotts — last week told principals to “respect the parents’ decision” if they decide to keep their child from taking the tests.

But at many of the opt-out hotspots, educators are offering support — both explicit and tacit — to families that are choosing to have their children sit out the tests.

Several schools held information sessions for parents who expressed interest in opting students out of the tests. In most cases, educators at those schools were “scrupulous” about offering information about testing while remaining neutral on the question of opting out, said Jessica Blatt, a parent at Brooklyn’s Arts and Letters Academy, where 83 percent of third graders are not taking the tests.

But educators’ comments at the meetings signaled that they were sympathetic to testing concerns — and emphasized that there would likely be no significant consequences for families who opted out, according to people who attended and records of the meetings.

Parents at the Earth School organized meetings where middle school principals explained that students’ lack of test scores would not be held against them in the admissions process, Lee said. At another forum for parents, Lee and other teachers described the impact of testing on their classrooms, she said. Some 57 percent of Earth School students are not taking this year’s tests.

Parents who are boycotting this year's state exams gathered Tuesday outside the Brooklyn New School.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Parents who are boycotting this year’s state exams gathered Tuesday outside the Brooklyn New School.

At Brooklyn New School, where 80 percent of students are opting out, Principal Anna Allanbrook shared a litany of concerns about the tests at public forums and in letters to parents this year. The tests last too long, cost too much, do not provide useful data for educators, and can “affect the careers” of teachers, she said at a meeting in September. In January, Allanbrook told parents that other schools with large opt-out numbers “were not punished” and that “children who opt out will not have a negative impact” on teacher evaluations, according to the minutes of parent meetings in January. Last year, when Allanbrook was less outspoken about the tests, only four families opted out. (Allanbrook declined to be interviewed for this story.)

A presentation by Arts and Letters staff noted that teachers will still have data from “ongoing, authentic assessments” even if students skip the state tests.

And at a public forum on testing at Manhattan’s Institute for Collaborative Education in February, a teacher described problems with the state tests for both students and teachers, according to minutes of the meeting prepared by parents who attended. Then the teacher added, “Opting out is a great way to have our voices heard,” the minutes say.

About 75 percent of students in ICE’s testing grades opted out of this year’s tests.

Encouraging families to boycott state tests comes with possible costs for educators. A group of educators who belong to the Movement of Rank-and-File Educators, a minority faction within the teachers union, have said publicly that they are supporting parents who opt out and colleagues who choose not to administer the tests. But their press release also urges teachers not to take a stand against testing without first getting legal counsel.

So some educators are registering their opposition to the tests not in public forums or rallies but behind the scenes, in private meetings with city officials. Teachers from several of the Brooklyn schools with high opt-out rates recently met with top education department officials to discuss their concerns with standardized testing.

“It was a recognition of the harms that an overemphasis on high-stakes testing is having on kids, teachers, and schools,” said City Councilman Brad Lander, who attended the meeting.

An education department spokeswoman said the department would continue to listen to concerns about the state tests.

“It is of paramount importance for our schools to have an environment that is respectful of the diversity of opinion surrounding this issue as we support our principals, teachers and maintain a sense of calm for our students,” said the spokeswoman, Devora Kaye.

That tone has come naturally to some school communities. When parents at Hamilton Heights School in Washington Heights decided to opt their children out, they brought in the advocacy group Time Out From Testing to explain the process to teachers who previously knew little about the movement, according to parent Kimberly Casteline.

Casteline said she did not expect the school to promote test refusal, but simply to enable parents to make that decision — as she said half had.

“What we expect is for the administration to carry out the wishes of parents,” she said. “And they have been absolutely willing to do that.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified the advocacy group that spoke to teachers at Hamilton Heights School.

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father knows best

How a brush with death convinced one dad to get his diploma, with a boost from the Fatherhood Academy

PHOTO: Courtesy of Steven Robles
Steven Robles with his family

Steven Robles thought he might not live to see his daughter’s birth.

In May 2016, the 20-year-old was in the hospital after being shot during what he described as an argument in his neighborhood.

A year later, Robles just graduated from City University of New York’s Fatherhood Academy. He passed his high school equivalency exam and is happily celebrating his daughter Avare’s 8-month birthday.

“That conflict is what got me into the program, and what happened to me before she was born motivated me to stay in the program,” Robles said. “It motivated me to manage to pass my GED.”

Robles grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn and attended Franklin K. Lane High School. Though he liked his teachers, Robles said other students at the school were not “mature enough,” and the disorderly school environment made it hard for him to concentrate.

A quiet student, Robles said teachers would often overlook his presence in the classroom. Between that and friction with other classmates, Robles lost interest in school.

“My parents didn’t try to help me, either,” Robles said. “Nobody really tried to help me with that school, so I just stopped going.”

It was a whole different experience for him once he arrived at the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College, a program run by CUNY for unemployed and underemployed fathers ages 18 through 28. The Academy, now partnering with the New York City Housing Authority at its LaGuardia location, was launched in 2012 and also has programs at Hostos and Kingsborough Community Colleges.

“I have interviewed many of the men who come into the program and I often ask the question, ‘What brought you here?'” said Raheem Brooks, program manager of the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College. “Mostly every young man says, ‘I’m here because I want to create a better life for my child than I had.’ So, I think the main theme of the program is that we help promote intergenerational change.”

At the LaGuardia branch, 30 students attend classes three times a week over the course of 16 weeks. Subjects include mathematics, social studies, and writing for students seeking to get their high school equivalency diplomas. Students also attend workshops run by counselors who guide them in professional development and parenting.

Robles found out about the program after seeing a flier for it in his social worker’s office at Graham Windham, a family support services organization. Curious to see what the Academy offered, he called to find out more and officially enrolled after passing a test to prove he could read above seventh-grade level.

“Before the Academy, I was not really into school at all,” Robles said. “But when I got there, it just changed my life. In this program, I didn’t know anybody there, there were no distractions. It made me more focused, and I just really wanted to get my GED and education.”

What helped Robles the most was getting to learn from the other fathers in the class, who were going through similar experiences as him.

“Little things I didn’t know, I learned from them because they were also fathers,” Robles said. “I just liked the way they were teaching us.”

In fact, he liked the Academy so much, he doesn’t plan to leave. He is applying to study criminal justice at LaGuardia Community College and to become a mentor for the Academy next year.

Currently, Robles lives with his grandparents, his daughter and the mother of his child. Getting a place for his family is next on his to-do list, he said.

“Avare always has a smile on her face and always puts a smile on my face,” Robles said. “She motivates me to get up and do what I have to do. Anything I could do for her, I will.”

Though school did not play a huge role in his life growing up, that is not what Robles wants for his daughter. He said after participating in the Academy, he wants to make sure Avare stays motivated and in school.

“I hear a lot from people about how they think they can’t do it,” Robles said. “I almost lost my life before my daughter was born and that motivated me. If I could do it, you could do it.”

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community.