opting out

Opt-out advocates get attention from city’s most powerful couple

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Mayor Bill de Blasio spoke with concerned parents and teachers at an event focused on opting out of state standardized testing in Brooklyn Monday night.

Parents and teachers on the front lines of the city’s opt-out movement had two unexpected visitors on Monday night.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and his wife, Chirlane McCray, were among about 100 people at an hour-long panel discussion on Monday night in Brooklyn designed to promote “More Than a Score” – a collection of essays and personal accounts of teachers, parents and students refusing to participate in high-stakes standardized testing.

The book’s editor and contributing author, Jesse Hagopian – a Seattle high school history teacher – is related to de Blasio, McCray told Chalkbeat. Diane Ravitch, an education historian who is known for her anti-testing positions and friendly with the mayor, also contributed to the book and was a member of Monday night’s panel.

De Blasio has said he understands parents’ frustrations with state tests that leave their children feeling nervous and overwhelmed. But he and his schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña have stopped short of encouraging parents to opt their students out of the tests, and Fariña told state lawmakers on Tuesday that she supports the tests and their role as a challenge for students.

After the discussion, de Blasio was approached by several small groups of parents and teachers who have participated in the opt-out movement or are working to organize their schools to do so. Kemala Karmen, a mother of two city students, told de Blasio that both of her children’s schools had achieved nearly an 80 percent opt-out rate last year.

“You’ve inspired my focus,” de Blasio told her.

Karmen said she has been involved in organizing against standardized tests since her now 13-year-old daughter was in kindergarten. Karmen has since moved on to speak at other schools about how parents can organize.

The movement “is definitely growing,” she said.

New York City parents opted out more than 1,900 students from taking state tests in 2014 – a big increase from the about 350 students that opted out in 2013, though that group still represents less than half of 1 percent of the city’s test-takers.

The consequences attached to the tests for teachers will be more significant than they were last year, which could spur more anti-testing activism among educators. Gov. Andrew Cuomo didn’t sign a bill he had proposed that would have offered a safety net for teachers rated poorly based on their students’ performance on the tests. This spring’s round of testing will also be the second for city teachers under a new evaluation system that includes consequences for teachers earning two “ineffective” ratings (though few city teachers earned that lowest rating last year).

Cuomo has also proposed making state test scores count for an even bigger portion of a teacher’s evaluation.

But the stakes will actually be lower for students this year. The state has banned schools from using state test scores as a main factor in admissions decisions and decisions about whether a student will be promoted to the next grade, changes that parents weren’t aware of before last spring’s tests. And while some struggling city schools are facing strict deadlines to improve their test scores, Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s new method for judging city schools has moved away from showcasing test-score growth.

Marissa Torres, a teacher at P.S. 261 in Brooklyn, said after the panel Monday that her school has boosted efforts to encourage parents to opt their kids out of state tests. The school’s parent action team recently sent out a letter to all parents in English, Spanish, and Arabic to gauge how many might be interested in opting their child out of state exams, she said.

“We’re much more organized than last year,” she said.

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified the boroughs where Kemala Karmen’s children attend school.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”