It wasn’t long before Karen Magee, the feisty leader of the state teachers union, steered the conversation on a radio program this week about the budget brawl in Albany to testing.

New York State United Teachers, along with its national and New York City counterparts, has made no secret of its problems with standardized tests. The required annual exams, which New York students will take this month, stress out children, warp instruction, and fuel unfair teacher evaluations, the unions say.

But as a rising number of parents decide to register their opposition to the tests by keeping their children from taking them, the unions have stopped short of endorsing the boycotts, saying only that parents should have a right to “opt out.” On Monday, Magee vaulted over that invisible line.

“I am saying that I would urge parents at this point in time to opt out of testing,” Magee said on the show Capitol Pressroom. (“Wow,” host Susan Arbetter replied.)

Last year, tens of thousands of students across New York sat out the state exams, as did more than 1,900 in the city — a tiny fraction of the 410,000 students who took the tests, but a 450 percent increase over the previous year. In addition to their loathing of standardized tests and how they can dictate what is taught in schools, many of the boycotters are also driven by their opposition to the Common Core standards that the tests measure and the teacher evaluations that rely on their results.

All that has forced union leaders, who back the standards and the need for student assessments but worry about over-testing and unreliable evaluation systems, to take increasingly nuanced stances on testing. The city’s United Federation of Teachers has managed to juggle those positions while at the same time mobilizing parents and teachers who are hostile to high-stakes testing, all without endorsing test refusal.

The union has been able to do that since members who openly back the opt-out movement are still in the minority. But with Magee’s comments coming as advocates predict record opt-out numbers this month, union leaders face new pressure to embrace exam boycotters.

“It’s really frustrating for those who are fighting the good fight to be turned down” by the unions, said Nancy Cauthen, a parent member of the city opt-out group Change the Stakes. “It seems like a little too much energy goes into maintaining their seat at the table,” she added, “rather than worrying about their membership and kids.”

Magee, who won control of NYSUT last year by pledging to take a harder line against state education policy, made her comments this week as state lawmakers battled Governor Andrew Cuomo over his plan to increase the weight of tests in teacher evaluations. In an interview with Chalkbeat, she said the union decided to encourage parents to opt out because of a “groundswell” of support for the movement among teachers and parents.

But in separate comments Monday, she suggested that a massive number of boycotters could undermine the evaluation system. “Statistically, if you take out enough, it has no merit or value whatsoever,” she told reporters. Her comments drew rebukes from a top state education official and Cuomo, who called them a “political tactic.”

Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.6 million-member American Federation of Teachers, of which NYSUT and the UFT are both affiliates, quickly jumped in. She posted online that she would boycott New York’s tests if she had children in the public schools, and that she understood “why @NYSUT and parents are calling for an opt-out.”

Laura Scott
PHOTO: Sarah Darville
UFT President Michael Mulgrew and AFT President Randi Weingarten attended a rally against Gov. Cuomo’s education policies at P.S. 10 in Brooklyn last month.

The influential historian and education blogger Diane Ravitch was quick to praise Weingarten for “personally endorsing” the opt-out movement. Other observers were more skeptical, asking if the AFT would now direct resources to the cause.

In an interview, Weingarten offered a nuanced take on testing, but stopped short of backing Magee’s decision to encourage test refusal. She said parents should have the right to opt out their children from the tests, and that teachers should have the right to “give parents both the pros and cons” of skipping the exams.

But she added that teachers are not necessarily protected if they refuse to administer mandated exams. And she said her union would not “run a campaign” advising parents to boycott the tests, as Magee implied she plans to do.

“There’s a difference between supporting a parent’s right to opt out and playing a leading role,” Weingarten said.

Unlike Weingarten, UFT President Michael Mulgrew did not rush to respond to Magee’s opt-out remarks. In an interview, he noted that he has previously said he backs parents’ right to boycott the exams and that his union is affiliated with NYSUT.

“That’s what the state president has said,” he said, referring to Magee’s comments. “We support our state union.”

Mulgrew represents a different membership than Magee, whose members hail from suburban and upstate districts with far higher opt-out percentages and some school boards that endorse test refusal. He also works closely with city schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, who takes a middle-of-the-road stance on testing similar to his. (Fariña told principals in a memo Tuesday to “reiterate the value” of tests to parents and students, but also to respect their decision to opt out.)

UFT President Michael Mulgrew and schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña have both called for a reduced emphasis on testing but avoided endorsing the test opt-out movement.
PHOTO: Jessica Glazer
UFT President Michael Mulgrew and schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña have both called for a reduced emphasis on testing but avoided endorsing the test opt-out movement.

Still, some city teachers have partnered with opt-out groups, discussed the movement with interested parents and sometimes encouraged them to join, and even pledged not to administer the tests. As they do, they are looking to their union leaders for support. Lauren Cohen, a fifth-grade teacher at opt-out-friendly P.S. 321 in Park Slope, said Magee’s comments this week made her wonder if the UFT would follow suit.

“Does this mean I can say what I really feel now and the union will protect me?” said Cohen, who is a member of the union’s Movement of Rank and File Educators, or MORE, caucus. 

Cohen introduced a MORE-sponsored resolution at a UFT meeting last week calling on the union to back parents who boycott the tests, to protect teachers who speak out against testing and “conscientious objectors” who refuse to give the exams, and to distribute opt-out materials. The measure did not get enough votes to be brought before the full membership, which some attributed to resistance from the union leadership.

Mike Schirtzer, a MORE member who helped write the resolution, said the union should conduct polls and host forums to gauge how many members support test refusal. Schirtzer, who teaches at Leon Goldstein High School for the Sciences in Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn, said he believes the number is larger than the leadership may realize.

“There is a huge groundswell of teachers getting behind opt out,” he said.

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