Field test

How New York City principals are thinking about the opt-out movement

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

For the past year, leaders of the opt-out movement have campaigned to chip away at the role state tests play in New York’s education system. And, to a large degree, it’s a fight they’re winning.

But for some city principals, the boycott poses a set of less ideological questions: Could it affect their ability to get a full view of students’ abilities? Could they be sanctioned if they are suspected of pressing their thumb to the scale in conversations with parents? Could students without test scores struggle to get into competitive high schools?

In interviews with a handful of school leaders, principals offered a range of answers. Principals at schools with high opt-out rates seem largely unconcerned about the consequences, with a couple of notable exceptions. And for many others, the debate is simply a non-issue in their school community.

Mark Federman, echoing several other principals, says he wasn’t worried about high opt-out rates resulting in the loss of valuable data on students’ math and reading skills over time.

“We just view [the state tests] as a small bit of information,” said Federman, principal at Manhattan’s East Side Community School, where roughly 20 percent of students opted out last year. “If you go to the doctor and say, ‘I’m having headaches,’ they’re going to take my blood pressure, they might give me an MRI. Every little bit of information you can get about a kid helps.”

The tests “work really well for people outside of schools,” he said, referring to politicians and policymakers who often think the tests give them useful information. “But for educators, they don’t really give us what we need.”

Arguments that there could be severe consequences for schools that look the other way, or actually encourage the boycotts, also seem thin to principals at schools with high opt-out rates last year. A few of those principals said they didn’t get pushback from the education department.

Part of the reason is likely that the policy winds are shifting: The state math and reading assessments have been detached from teacher evaluations, and despite threats from the federal government to withhold funding from districts with high opt-out rates, many educators see those as empty. The state’s top education official has even signaled her support for the boycotts.

Still, some educators worry that even if there are no external consequences, opting out could hurt students in the high school admissions process.

Stacy Goldstein, who runs the School of the Future in Manhattan, says she is sympathetic to parents who want to opt out, but has encouraged some parents to reconsider, as it can be difficult to understand exactly how selective schools weigh test scores in the admissions process.

“I tell them to feel it out [and] do their due diligence,” she said. “I tell them to be kind of cynical about it.”

“If you’re the parent of a seventh grader and you’re worried about what high school you’re going to, that’s a legitimate issue,” echoed Brooklyn New School’s Anna Allanbrook, a vocal test critic who said the drawbacks of opting out are outweighed by the benefits. Her school had a 95 percent opt-out rate last year.

Goldstein isn’t predicting anything that high at her school. Even though virtually no students opted out at her school last year, she anticipates a jump to a roughly 10 percent opt-out rate.

For principals like Goldstein, the prospect of a big jump in opt-outs also creates new logistical hurdles. How should teachers handle time allocated for test prep so that students who boycott the tests don’t simply check out without consequence?

“I get worried that it splits the class,” Goldstein said, “and then the teacher has to negotiate the kids who are and kids who aren’t [opting out].” She plans to assign reading about the testing debate for the students who opt out and require they write an essay during the exam time.

But others aren’t addressing the issue at all, either to avoid wading into potential controversy or because their families simply aren’t talking about it. Even though a record-breaking 20 percent of students statewide boycotted the exams last year, fewer than 2 percent of students citywide sat out.

“It’s not something we are actually talking about,” said Jazmin Rivera Polanco, principal of Entrada Academy, a Bronx school that is part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “Renewal” program. Last year, her school reported virtually no opt-outs.

Polanco said she doesn’t believe that many of her students, a third of whom are English language learners, should have to take the tests at all because of their limited exposure to the language. Polanco is reluctant to discuss that with parents, even though many of them incorrectly believe their children could be held back if they refuse the tests.

“We don’t want to say something that would be seen as jumping the gun, or saying information that those in the DOE might not find that it’s our place to [say],” Polanco added.

Multiple principals interviewed for this story expressed uneasiness talking about how their schools were handling students who boycott. And the education department has cautioned teachers against expressing their opinions about the tests.

“Schools have spent so many years answering to those test scores,” said Julia Zuckerman, principal of the Castle Bridge School, where not a single student sat for the state tests last year. “To think that there’s another way of doing it is a tricky position to take.”

Goldstein at School of the Future put it much more bluntly.

Since she became a principal, “I feel much more strongly that these tests are problematic,” she said. “But I want to make sure that [the opt-out movement] is not feeding into a sense of entitlement or laziness.”

“I still want rigor,” she said. “I still want assessment.”

making the rounds

Tennessee’s new education chief ‘very confident’ that online testing will be smooth in April

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee's new education commissioner Penny Schwinn (second from left) met with Douglass High School students and Shelby County Schools leaders Friday.

As Tennessee’s new education commissioner wrapped up her second week on the job by visiting four schools in Shelby County, Penny Schwinn said she feels “very confident” the state has learned from its mistakes in online testing.

During the more than three-hour ride to Memphis on Friday, Schwinn said she continued to pore over documents showing evidence that the corrections the state department staff have put in place will work.

“I feel very confident that our team has looked into that,” she told reporters in a press conference after meeting with students. “They’re working with the vendor to ensure that testing is as smooth as possible this year.” Currently the state is working with Questar, who administered TNReady online last year.

She also said the state’s request for proposals from testing vendors, which is already months behind, will be released in about two weeks.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
From left: John Bush, principal of Douglass High School; Penny Schwinn, Tennessee Education Commissioner; and Joris Ray, interim superintendent for Shelby County Schools.

“No later than that,” she said. “We hope and expect to have a vendor in place before the end of the fiscal year,” in late June.

The day Schwinn was hired, she said getting state testing right would be her first priority. Three years of major technical failures have severely damaged the trust educators and parents have in the state’s test, TNReady. It is the main measure of how schools and teachers are doing, but state lawmakers exempted districts from most testing consequences in 2018.


From Schwinn’s first day on the job: Tennessee’s new education chief wants to ‘listen and learn’ with school visits


Prior to talking with reporters, Schwinn said she heard “hard-hitting questions” from several students at Douglass High School in Memphis about what the state can do to improve education. Schwinn has said she will visit Tennessee schools throughout her tenure to ‘listen and learn’ by talking to students and educators.

Reporters were not allowed to attend the student discussion with Schwinn and some Shelby County Schools leaders.

Douglass High entered Shelby County Schools’ turnaround program, known as the iZone, in 2016 and saw high academic growth in its first year. But test scores fell this past year as the state wrestled with online malfunctions.

Timmy Becton Jr., a senior at Douglass High, said he hopes for fewer tests and more projects to demonstrate what a student has learned. Those kind of assessments, he said, can help a student connect what they are learning to their daily life.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee’s new education commissioner met with students at Douglass High School and Shelby County Schools leaders.

“We figured it would be a different way to measure and see how much knowledge a student really has on a specific subject,” he told Chalkbeat after meeting with Schwinn during a student roundtable session. “It’s a good alternative to taking tests.”

He said he was “surprised and happy” to see Schwinn actively seek student perspectives.

“I really think that’s the most important part because students are the ones going to school every day,” Becton said. “So, if you want to find a good perspective on how to solve a problem, it’s really great to talk to the people who are actively involved in it and the people who are actually experiencing these problems directly.”

The state’s annual testing window runs from April 15 to May 3.

School discipline

Michigan schools have expelled fewer students, but that may not be cause for celebration

PHOTO: Getty Images

Michigan schools have expelled far fewer students since the state enacted laws aimed at cutting back on expulsions. But an advocate who’s pushed for an end to zero-tolerance policies pointed out persistent problems and told elected state education leaders this week that, “We shouldn’t start celebrating yet.”

This is why: Peri Stone-Palmquist, executive director of the Ypsilanti-based Student Advocacy Center, told State Board of Education members that in the 18 months since the new laws took effect in 2017, expulsions have dropped 12 percent. But she’s concerned that too many school leaders don’t understand the law or are ignoring its requirements. And she believes some schools are finding other ways of kicking kids out of school without expelling them.

Michigan did away with zero-tolerance policies that had earned it a reputation for having some of the toughest disciplinary rules in the nation. In their place, lawmakers instituted new rules, such as requiring schools to consider seven factors — including a student’s age, disciplinary record, disability and seriousness of the incident — in making expulsion decisions.

“We have had districts and charters tell advocates that they would not consider the seven factors at all,” Stone-Palmquist said. Others aren’t sharing with parents and students how those seven factors were used. And she said there’s a general “lack of understanding of lesser interventions and the persistent belief that lengthy removals remain necessary.”

That’s a problem, she and others say, because of the negative consequences of kicking students out of school. Studies have shown that students kicked out of school are often missing out on an education and are more likely to get into trouble. Advocates also worry that expulsion exacerbates what they describe as a “school-to-prison” pipeline.

She said advocates are noticing that more students are receiving long suspensions, an indication that some schools are suspending students rather than expelling them. Hiding students in suspension data won’t work much longer, though. Michigan now requires schools to collect such data, which soon will be public.

Stone-Palmquist also said that some schools aren’t even going through the expulsion process, but simply referring students with discipline issues to “understaffed virtual settings.”

“Once again, the students who need the most get the least, and no one has to report it as an expulsion.”

Stone-Palmquist gave an example of a ninth-grader involved in a verbal altercation who was expelled for a long time for persistent disobedience, “despite our team lining up extensive community resources for him and despite the district never trying positive interventions with him.”

In another case, a fifth-grader was expelled for 180 days for spitting at another student who had done the same to them first. Stone-Palmquist said the seven factors weren’t considered.

“We were told at the appeal hearing that the student’s behaviors were too dangerous to consider lesser interventions.”

She and Kristin Totten, an education lawyer for the ACLU of Michigan, provided board members with statistics that some members found alarming. Totten noted that an ACLU review of data collected by the federal government shows that for every 100 students in Michigan, 38 days are lost due to suspension. In Oakland County, 26 days are lost for every 100 students. In Macomb County, it’s 35 days and in Wayne County, it’s 55 days.

One child who’s experienced trauma for years was repeatedly suspended from multiple schools. The 11-year-old has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. This school year, she’s been suspended for 94 days.

“Never once were the seven factors mentioned to her mother,” Totten said.

Stone-Palmquist asked board members to consider recommendations, including developing a model student code of conduct that incorporates the new rules, partnering with the advocacy center to request an attorney general’s opinion on what districts are required to do, and expanding data collection.

Tom McMillin, a member of the state board, asked whether the state should consider financial penalties, such as withholding some state aid.

“I’m a fierce advocate for local control. But in areas where the incentives might not be there to do what’s right … I’m fine with the state stepping in,” McMillin said.

Board member Pamela Pugh said she appreciated the push for the board to “move with great speed.” She said the data and stories provided are “compelling, as well as convincing.”

Stone-Palmquist said that despite her concerns, there have been some successes.

“Districts that used to automatically expel 180 days for fights, for instance, have partnered with us to dramatically reduce those removals with great outcomes,” she said. “We know alternatives are possible and that they actually help get to the root of the problem, prevent future wrongdoing and repair the harm.”

The Detroit school district didn’t come up during the hearing. But on the same day Stone-Palmquist presented to the state board, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti gave a presentation to his local board of education about what’s happened in the months since the district embarked on an effort to improve school culture by revising the student code of conduct, hiring deans for each school, and providing training on alternative discipline methods.

The bottom line: Vitti said that schools are booting out dramatically fewer students and greatly increasing alternative methods of discipline. In-school suspensions are up, given the push against out-of-school suspensions.

But the changes have also raised concerns. Some school staff have said the new rules are tying their hands. Vitti said it will take time for the changes to take hold, and he outlined some areas that need to improve, including more training.