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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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.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.