"Respect the parents' decision" to opt out of tests, city principals are told

City principals should counsel families that are considering opting their children out of state tests but should respect the families’ final decisions, according to a guide that Chancellor Carmen Fariña distributed to administrators on Thursday.

The guide offers answers to frequently asked questions about participation in state tests, which begin next week. With the city and state grappling with the simultaneous rollout of tougher standards, which last year led to much harder tests, and a new teacher evaluation system that weighs test scores for the first time, anxiety about the tests is high, and some families are planning to opt out in protest.

Last year, 276 city families boycotted the tests, according to Department of Education officials. But this year, testing critics who Thursday called for a “test-free zone” in Harlem said they expected at least three times as many families to opt out. At one Brooklyn school where just four students opted out of the exams last year, two thirds of families are planning to sit the tests out.

“I know that there is increased attention on the state tests this year, and that this has generated some frustration,” Fariña wrote in an email to department officials about the guide. “We trust that you will help your schools create an environment that is respectful of the diversity of opinion surrounding this issue.”

Fariña has urged principals to reduce their emphasis on the state tests but has publicly called for caution when it comes to boycotting them. In early February, she cautioned parents in District 15, where the anti-testing push has been especially strong, that she wouldn’t encourage opting out of the state exams.

“Again, every parent needs to make their own decision. I don’t think necessarily opting out of the test is the greatest way to get the best outcome,” Fariña told them.

The Department of Education’s guidance urges principals to encourage families to reconsider their choice to opt out. But it also explains what to do if the families stick to their plan:

If, after consulting with the principal, the parents still want to opt their child out of the exams, the principal should respect the parents’ decision and let them know that the school will work to the best of their ability to provide the child with an alternate educational activity (e.g., reading) during testing times.

The guide explains that teachers will decide whether students who skip the tests can be promoted to the next grade by examining a portfolio of their work.

But the department is not assuaging all concerns. The guide says skipping the state test could have adverse effects for current fourth and seventh graders when they apply to middle and high school:

Students without test scores can still apply to these programs, but they may be at a disadvantage because their applications won’t have as much information as those of their peers. Some schools may review other information, but not all schools do. Additionally for the middle school admissions process, there are test-based programs that require the 4th grade scores for admissions; public school students without 4th grade scores are not eligible for test-based programs.

The full guide is here.

This piece has been corrected to reflect the accurate number of students who “opted out” of last year’s tests.