Parents who keep their children from taking the annual state exams are making a “terrible mistake,” Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said in a speech last week where she urged district officials to explain to families why testing is important.

With less than a month before students start taking the English and math tests, which are used to rate teachers and schools as well as track student progress, Tisch said the state will try to dissuade parents from boycotting the exams. Last year, up to 60,000 students opted out of the tests statewide, while 1,925 did so in New York City — a tiny fraction of the city’s test takers, but a more than four-fold increase from the previous year.

“I believe that test refusal is a terrible mistake because it eliminates important information about how our kids are doing,” Tisch said at a New York State Council of School Superintendents conference March 9 in Albany, according to her prepared remarks. She added that the state would not “force” students to take the exams, but “we are going to continue to help students and parents understand that it is a terrible mistake to refuse the right to know.”

Tisch’s comments come amid a rancorous statewide debate over testing reignited by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal this year to dramatically increase the weight of test scores in state-mandated teacher evaluations. The state and city teachers unions fiercely oppose that plan, as do many of the parents and educators who argued during city-wide rallies last week that the proposal is unfair to teachers and will lead to even more test preparation in schools.

Tisch, who has also called for test scores to play a greater role in teacher ratings, addressed those concerns in her speech. She said she agrees that the tests themselves could be improved, but said parents who boycott the exams are opposed to the very idea of judging educators based on student test scores.

“They have said they want to bring down the whole system on which adult accountability is based — even if only a little bit — on evidence of student learning,” she said.

Tisch went on to argue that annual testing is vital to see how well schools are helping students meet the demands of the new Common Core standards, and whether the state’s “multi-billion dollar investment in education” is paying off.

“We don’t refuse to go to the doctor for an annual check-up,” she said, adding that most people also do not refuse to get vaccinated. “We should not refuse to take the test.”

Brooklyn New School and the Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies held a joint rally last week as part of city-wide protests of Gov. Cuomo's education policies.
PHOTO: Justin Weiner
Brooklyn New School and the Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies held a joint rally last week as part of city-wide protests of Gov. Cuomo’s education policies.

Kemala Karmen, who opted her two children out of last year’s tests, said it is “insulting” and “condescending” for Tisch to suggest that parents need test scores to know how well their children are doing in school. She said that reviewing her daughters’ class work and speaking with their teachers offers a much richer and more accurate picture of their progress than the standardized tests, which she said are flawed and overly time consuming.

One of her daughters is a fifth grader at the Brooklyn New School, an elementary school in the borough’s District 15, a hotbed of anti-testing activism. About 80 percent of students in tested grades at Brooklyn New School opted out last year, and 75 families have already turned in letters stating their plans to do so this year, Karmen said. She said Tisch’s comments suggest that state officials are worried many families will boycott the tests again this year.

“It’s obvious they’re scared,” Karmen said. “This is growing.”

In contrast to Tisch, city schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña has expressed mixed views about the use of test scores. She said they should count for no more than 30 percent of a teacher’s rating, rather than the 50 percent Cuomo has proposed, and she changed the city’s school report cards to emphasize other measures in addition to test scores.

But while she has told principals to respect the decision of parents who keep their children from taking the exams, she said she personally feels it is important for students to get used to taking tests.

“I want to be very clear, I do believe in the test,” Fariña said last week on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show. “I think kids will be tested throughout all their lives, and I think meeting challenges is part of what they need to do.”