As opt-out movement builds among parents, educators play a growing role

For Jia Lee, a critic of the state’s standardized tests who teaches at the Earth School and has a son there, the decision to opt her child out of this year’s exams was a “no-brainer.”

But Lee felt she could do more, so she and two of her colleagues at the East Village public school decided to refuse to administer this year’s state tests.

The teachers had already drafted a letter to the schools chancellor explaining their decision when they were called into their school office last week. Enough families had opted their children out of the tests, the teachers were told, that they did not need to proctor the exam — the teachers’ planned boycott was trumped by their students’. So on Tuesday, the first of six state-exam days, all but a handful of Lee’s students worked on a project about immigration instead of taking the test.

As the number of parents who opt out their children grows, and as test scores play a role in teacher evaluations for the first time, educators like Lee are being drawn into their protest. Some are simply providing logistical information to parents; others are sharing their concerns about over-testing; and still others, including Lee, are opting out their own children or, in some cases, even encouraging other parents to.

“We’re hoping that more teachers will realize that there’s empowerment in saying, ‘We don’t want to be a part of this,’” Lee said.

The number of city families opting out of state tests this year is poised to hit a record high, one year after new tests tied to the Common Core standards resulted in vastly lower scores. While just 276 students opted out citywide last year, nearly 640 students have already opted out this year just among six schools in Brooklyn and Manhattan, according to parents and teachers. The advocacy group Change the Stakes estimates that 1,000 students or more may decline to take this year’s test — a tiny portion of the city’s test-takers, but a huge increase from years past.

Many families are opting out despite pushback from their schools. At least 50 parents told Change the Stakes that school administrators discouraged them or told them children who skip the tests might be penalized, according to parent leader Nancy Cauthen. Responding to the growing tension within schools, Chancellor Carmen Fariña — who herself has expressed reservations about test boycotts — last week told principals to “respect the parents’ decision” if they decide to keep their child from taking the tests.

But at many of the opt-out hotspots, educators are offering support — both explicit and tacit — to families that are choosing to have their children sit out the tests.

Several schools held information sessions for parents who expressed interest in opting students out of the tests. In most cases, educators at those schools were “scrupulous” about offering information about testing while remaining neutral on the question of opting out, said Jessica Blatt, a parent at Brooklyn’s Arts and Letters Academy, where 83 percent of third graders are not taking the tests.

But educators’ comments at the meetings signaled that they were sympathetic to testing concerns — and emphasized that there would likely be no significant consequences for families who opted out, according to people who attended and records of the meetings.

Parents at the Earth School organized meetings where middle school principals explained that students’ lack of test scores would not be held against them in the admissions process, Lee said. At another forum for parents, Lee and other teachers described the impact of testing on their classrooms, she said. Some 57 percent of Earth School students are not taking this year’s tests.

Parents who are boycotting this year’s state exams gathered Tuesday outside the Brooklyn New School. (Patrick Wall)

At Brooklyn New School, where 80 percent of students are opting out, Principal Anna Allanbrook shared a litany of concerns about the tests at public forums and in letters to parents this year. The tests last too long, cost too much, do not provide useful data for educators, and can “affect the careers” of teachers, she said at a meeting in September. In January, Allanbrook told parents that other schools with large opt-out numbers “were not punished” and that “children who opt out will not have a negative impact” on teacher evaluations, according to the minutes of parent meetings in January. Last year, when Allanbrook was less outspoken about the tests, only four families opted out. (Allanbrook declined to be interviewed for this story.)

A presentation by Arts and Letters staff noted that teachers will still have data from “ongoing, authentic assessments” even if students skip the state tests.

And at a public forum on testing at Manhattan’s Institute for Collaborative Education in February, a teacher described problems with the state tests for both students and teachers, according to minutes of the meeting prepared by parents who attended. Then the teacher added, “Opting out is a great way to have our voices heard,” the minutes say.

About 75 percent of students in ICE’s testing grades opted out of this year’s tests.

Encouraging families to boycott state tests comes with possible costs for educators. A group of educators who belong to the Movement of Rank-and-File Educators, a minority faction within the teachers union, have said publicly that they are supporting parents who opt out and colleagues who choose not to administer the tests. But their press release also urges teachers not to take a stand against testing without first getting legal counsel.

So some educators are registering their opposition to the tests not in public forums or rallies but behind the scenes, in private meetings with city officials. Teachers from several of the Brooklyn schools with high opt-out rates recently met with top education department officials to discuss their concerns with standardized testing.

“It was a recognition of the harms that an overemphasis on high-stakes testing is having on kids, teachers, and schools,” said City Councilman Brad Lander, who attended the meeting.

An education department spokeswoman said the department would continue to listen to concerns about the state tests.

“It is of paramount importance for our schools to have an environment that is respectful of the diversity of opinion surrounding this issue as we support our principals, teachers and maintain a sense of calm for our students,” said the spokeswoman, Devora Kaye.

That tone has come naturally to some school communities. When parents at Hamilton Heights School in Washington Heights decided to opt their children out, they brought in the advocacy group Time Out From Testing to explain the process to teachers who previously knew little about the movement, according to parent Kimberly Casteline.

Casteline said she did not expect the school to promote test refusal, but simply to enable parents to make that decision — as she said half had.

“What we expect is for the administration to carry out the wishes of parents,” she said. “And they have been absolutely willing to do that.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified the advocacy group that spoke to teachers at Hamilton Heights School.

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