Pro-tester

Merryl Tisch: Opting out of the state exams is a ‘terrible mistake’

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch with then-State Education Commissioner John King in 2014. Tisch said she would "think twice" about opting into the state tests if she were a parent with a student with special needs.

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.”

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.