eyes on opt-out

Tripling in size, city’s opt-out movement draws new members from over 160 schools

PHOTO: Justin Weiner

New York City’s small but growing opt-out movement took hold in all five boroughs this year, with groups of students refusing to take state exams in more than 160 schools, according to city data released Wednesday.

More than 7,900 students across the city opted out of at least one of the exams, which cover math and English and are given to students in grades three to eight, according to the city education department. While the boycotters represented less than 2 percent of all eligible test takers, their numbers have more than tripled since last year.

Still, the city’s corps of boycotters was dwarfed by the state’s: About one in five New York students — or roughly 200,000 students out of 1.1 million eligible test takers — refused to take the exams this April, state education officials said.

Top education officials on Wednesday defended the state’s challenging Common Core learning standards and the annual assessments tied to them, despite the unprecedented show of defiance by parents and students, who were backed by many sympathetic educators and openly encouraged by the state teachers union. They also held out the threat that districts and schools with high opt-out numbers could lose federal funding.

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said her agency would consider the public’s concerns, but insisted that the state would be “moving forward with higher standards” and suggested that parents and teachers who support opting out may not grasp the importance of the standards and tests.

“Perhaps there hasn’t been enough information out not only to parents, but perhaps to our own educators on how they can effectively use this information,” she said on a conference call with reporters, referring to the test results.

Parent opposition to testing had been growing but caught fire in 2013 when more difficult Common Core-aligned exams brought students’ scores crashing down, and has been fueled by educators who object to being rated based on those scores. While hostility to the tests is still most widespread in progressive-minded parts of Brooklyn and Manhattan with many higher-income families, students in dozens of schools beyond those opt-out hotspots joined in this year, the data shows.

About 600 students across 25 schools in the Bronx boycotted the math exams, as did about 450 students in more than a dozen Staten Island schools, according to the city. Those figures only include students in schools where 10 or more students who opted out, meaning that the total opt-out counts are probably slightly higher. About half as many students in each borough skipped the English exams. (Citywide, about 1,750 more students opted out of the math tests than English, which could be because the math tests were administered later, giving the boycott more time to simmer.)

[See what schools and districts had the most students opt out of the exams here.]

Still, Brooklyn had the most students opt out, with seven of the 10 schools with the most boycotters based in that borough. Brooklyn’s District 15, which includes Park Slope, saw at least 1,450 students sit out the English exams and 1,660 skip math — far more than any other city district. Statewide, students who opted out were more likely to be white and from wealthier districts, and to have earned non-passing scores on last year’s exams if they took them, officials said.

Nancy Cauthen, a member of the opt-out group Change the Stakes, said that many parents outside the usual anti-testing districts are unaware that they can keep their students from taking the exams, or have faced pressure not to from school administrators worried about the possible impact on their school’s ratings and funding. Still, she said more parents from such districts contacted her group this year asking its members to speak at opt-out informational meetings.

“We had more members doing presentations in Spanish, going to a wider range of schools in terms of income levels,” said Cauthen, whose son skipped this year’s exams at P.S./I.S. 187 in Washington Heights.

Even as the opt-out movement creeps into more corners of the city, the figures released Wednesday also highlighted the relatively small size of the city’s opt-out movement compared to those in many other districts across New York.

Opt-out advocates cite many reasons: the city has many high-need schools where staff and parents may worry about losing federal funding; unlike other districts, student promotion to the next grade was long tied to test scores, and certain middle and high schools still consider scores in admissions; and, in contrast to the state teachers union, the city union did not endorse opting out.

Mayor Bill de Blasio gave his own explanation Wednesday, saying that parents were encouraged last year when the city changed the promotion policy to include other measures of student progress besides just test scores. While city schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña has instructed principals to respect the will of parents, she also said bluntly Wednesday: “I don’t believe in opt-out. I believe that everyone needs to be assessed.”

It was still not clear Wednesday what penalties, if any, city schools with many test refusers might face.

Federal rules require at least 95 percent of students in tested grades to take the annual exams, and say that districts could lose some federal funding if they repeatedly fail to get their schools to meet that threshold. A U.S. education department spokeswoman said Wednesday that it is the state’s responsibility to impose sanctions on districts. But a spokesman for the state agency said federal officials were the ones considering penalizing schools and districts, which the state believes “would be wrong to do.”

Commissioner Elia said she has had several conversations on this matter with federal officials, who suggested that they could reduce funding for districts with low test-participation rates.

“That is an option they have,” she told reporters, “but they have not indicated whether they’re doing that or not.”

If any teachers had fewer than 16 students take the tests, then alternative measures of student learning would be substituted for test scores in their evaluations, state officials said.

Jia Lee, a teacher at the Earth School in Manhattan where more than 100 students boycotted the exams, said the city’s expanding opt-out movement reflects a “growing ground-up awareness of parents, teachers and students who don’t want to be evaluated based on an invalid metric.”

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

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