Students at elite high school boycott teacher evaluation tests

For some high-achievers at Stuyvesant High School, flunking their latest test is no big deal.

A group of students at the elite high school in lower Manhattan pledged to opt out of the English tests that were administered today, saying they’re opposed to the exam’s purpose. The tests are low-stakes for students, but they’ll be used to grade teachers on new evaluations being rolled out this year.

“This movement is meant to support Stuyvesant teachers in opposing an unfair teacher evaluation system,” Senior David Cahn wrote on the Facebook page he created to encourage other students to join in.

Students across the city are taking formal baseline tests this year in many subjects because of new teacher evaluation rules. The rules require teachers to be rated in part by how much their students improve over the course of the year, and schools are using tests this fall as the baseline for determining student proficiency at the beginning of the year.

The extra testing has eaten into class time and taken teachers out of classroom for grading. Earlier this month, parents at an Upper Manhattan school grew so fed up that they boycotted pre-tests at their “early education” school, prompting the principals to scrap the exams altogether. The city announced this week that it’s looking for alternatives to the schools, which exclusively serve students in kindergarten through second.

The efforts at Stuyvesant, an ultra-competitive school where whose students must ace a citywide admissions exam to gain entry, appear to be the first student-driven protest since the new evaluations have been implemented in New York City. The school also has a history of student activism, including last year when Cahn and his twin brother, Jack, challenged the school’s handling of student elections.

On Facebook, students discussed a variety of ways to abstain from the tests, which were administered this morning. Some said they’d rather be working on their college applications; others suggested they’d take the test, but bomb it on purpose.

“I will be writing one of the best joke essays I have ever written,” one student quipped.

Senior Sweyn Venderbush posted a generic letter that he had written based on language used on a national anti-testing web site. He suggested that students bring it to the school’s administration to inform them of their opt out plans.

He offered another option to students that didn’t bring in an opt-out letter: “Push the test away and don’t write anything on it,” Venderbush wrote. ”If you do, it may be marked as a zero so refuse to write on the test.”

Not all students agreed with the protest.

“Don’t mess around with your teacher’s evaluations,” one student posted.

Students who refuse to take the tests can’t negatively hurt their teacher’s rating, a Department of Educations spokesman said. They simply won’t count toward the rating at all.

The tests weren’t required. A committee of teachers at Stuyvesant voted to administer the tests to get a baseline over using a combination of historical student data, including previous state test scores and report card grades.

Dennis Tompkins, a spokesman for the State Education Department stressed this fact in a statement. He said that the opted-out students could still be counted toward a teacher’s rating using the historical data.

“This is very straightforward – we don’t require pre-tests for anyone,” Tompkins said in a statement. “If they opt out …  historical data would be used instead.”

It’s unclear how many students from the 3,300-student school planned to follow through with the plan. Principal Jie Zhang did not respond to emails and phone calls seeking comment.

Outside the school last week, students said they weren’t looking forward to taking the tests. But most said they still planned to take the test.

“I feel like it’s an unfair way to measure teachers because students know they aren’t going to be graded, so they’re not going to try their hardest,” said freshman Ahmad Alnasser.

Caspar Lant, a senior, was the rare student to welcome the benchmark test. He said that Stuyvesant’s teachers could use more scrutiny, since in his view some teachers coast by on the assumption that their high-performing students require little guidance.

“I’m the kind of student that loses all motivation when my teachers aren’t invested,” he said.Patrick Wall contributed reporting