testing testing

Opt-out families respond to Carranza’s statement that boycotting tests is an ‘extreme reaction’

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
A protest in 2014 at P.S. 321 in Park Slope against the state English exams.

With state tests just days away, New York City’s new chancellor waded into the state’s white hot opt-out debate — and some families were hoping for a different message.

Chancellor Richard Carranza said the choice to skip the test — which one in five New York state students did last year — was an “extreme reaction” during a lengthy interview on NY1.

Some parents involved in the state’s opt-out movement said that if pulling their children out of exams seemed rash, it is only because a dramatic protest was necessary to have their testing concerns heard. The parents said they hope to share these concerns with Carranza and that they intend to sit out the tests again this year.

“We tried many approaches to upset change in Albany,” said Tia Schellstede, who has a child at P.S. 10 in Brooklyn. But, she said, “Albany only listens to extreme reactions.”

The testing boycott movement has had some impact in New York. The protests were one factor that pushed state policymakers to change the state’s standardized tests, such as reducing the number of testing days in math and English each from three to two, and de-emphasize the use of tests in teacher evaluations and in judging schools.

“It’s up to parents to decide if their children should take the tests, and we want them to have the all the facts so they can make an informed decision,” said state education department spokeswoman Emily DeSantis.

It is unclear whether there will be less interest in the boycott this year. The numbers of families opting out, while still high, were down two percentage points last year. The debate is also different in New York City than in the rest of the state. Last year, only 3 percent of students in the city opted out of English exams and 3.5 percent opted out of math.

During Carranza’s interview, in addition to explaining the benefits of testing, he also acknowledged the limitations. “I think we need to educate the entire child and the entire child being educated is more than the sum total of a test,” Carranza said.

New York City education department officials stressed the same points as Carranza, saying that while test scores are only a snapshot of student performance, they provide important feedback to educators.

“Students are more than a single test score,” said education department spokeswoman Toya Holness. “State tests are one valuable tool for schools and educators to know how they’re doing and how they can improve instruction.”

Still, inside the opt-out movement, parents say they will continue refusing the test until more of their demands are met. They are pushing for significantly shorter tests, an end to the use of test scores as a factor in school closings, and test questions that are more appropriate for each grade level, said Megan Devir, who has children at P.S. 321 and MS 839 in Brooklyn.

“We found a tool (opting out) that’s effective and so why would we put this tool down now?” Devir said.

The traditional testing battle lines are being drawn already with state testing starting next week. Council member Daniel Dromm, the former head of the council’s education committee, is holding a press conference ahead of the tests calling on the education department to inform parents about their ability to opt out of tests.

He expressed his disappointment at Carranza’s statements in a phone call with Chalkbeat on Thursday. “I think that the only thing that’s extreme is the way the state misused these tests,” Dromm said. “I can totally understand why parents opt out of these tests.”

Meanwhile, Stephen Sigmund, executive director of High Achievement New York, an organization that backs taking the tests, has been traveling the state on a campaign to encourage test participation. Sigmund, who answered his phone on the way back from one such trip in Rochester, said he was encouraged by Carranza’s statements.

“We’re grateful that he is recognizing, as did Chancellor Fariña, the importance of taking state assessments,” Sigmund said. “They are an important part of figuring out what students need.”

Some parents said they still believe Carranza is not a supporter of high-stakes testing and wondered aloud if the chancellor’s comments were driven by a desire to align himself with the mayor, who they say has not embraced the opt-out movement.

“I’m not going to say Carranza’s disappointing,” said Kemala Karmen, who has been active in the testing refusal movement in New York City and has two children at the Institute for Collaborative Education. “I’m going to say the mayor is disappointing.”

Some of the opt-out parents were willing to cut the new chancellor a little slack. Ted Pauly, who has two sons at P.S. 321, said in an email response to Chalkbeat that he found Carranza likeable and that he appreciated that the new chancellor discussed the limitations of standardized testing. But he said that the testing refusal movement became necessary to push for changes when policymakers were not listening.

Others said the comment was likely to engender pushback.

“This is an infuriating statement that will be met with immense resistance and hostility,” said Michael Elliot, a parent of twins who attend MS 839 in Kensington emailed Chalkbeat a statement. “He just lit the fire in opt out.”

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.