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.”

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.