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In Brooklyn, wary about state exams, but waiting to protest until after them

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

As hundreds of parents, students, and teachers marched in front of P.S. 321 in Park Slope on Friday to protest the quality of this year’s state tests, a much smaller group waited for an opening. The women weren’t participating in the rally, but simply needed to drop their kids off.

“I understand their concerns, but that’s a teacher and school issue to work out, not to bring out anxiety for the children,” said one of the mothers, Misty March. “Testing is just a part of people’s lives.”

March’s perspective provided a sharp contrast to the backlash against testing that has swept portions of the city in recent weeks, as students and teachers faced a second year of harder state tests whose scores will, for the first time, influence teachers’ annual ratings. Anti-testing advocates estimate that at least four times as many families as last year are choosing to “opt out” of the tests, though the number still represents a tiny fraction of families citywide.

While a handful of P.S. 321 families skipped the tests, the school mostly waited until after the exams to protest. And in contrast to parent-led rallies against testing before the exams, the protest there today was spearheaded by teachers, who said seeing the English tests administered over the last three days left them sure that the tests would not provide a useful measure of students’ skills.

“The kind of things they’re testing would not correlate with somebody’s ability to read and understand what we want kids to be able to do,” said Liz Phillips, the school’s principal. “Day three, which was all short response and essays, was horrible. … It was the third day that pushed everybody over the edge.”

At P.S. 321’s urging, teachers at P.S. 29 in nearby Carroll Gardens — where Chancellor Carmen Fariña launched her teaching career — organized a protest outside their school this morning that drew a few dozen families. The teachers also distributed a letter that they had drafted before the test describing the negative influence of testing on the school.

Leah Brunski, one of three dozen teachers who signed on to the letter, said the teachers had struggled with when to publish the letter but decided to wait until after the English tests were over. “Now it’s not so much about opting out,” she said. “It’s a bigger conversation.”

P.S. 29 Principal Rebecca Fagin noted that families and educators at P.S. 29 hold diverse opinions about testing and said she sees her role as facilitating an ongoing dialogue about the issue. But she said her staff had been surprised by this week’s exams.

“The overwhelming feeling was that the tests really are not a true measure of what the Common Core asks of students,” Fagin said.

Just four families at P.S. 29 — which is located on the same street as Brooklyn New School, where more than 80 percent of families opted out of this year’s tests — chose to skip the exams. Some parents said they had even hired tutors to help their children prepare for the tests.

Lauren Young was one of them: Her son Leo is in fourth grade, and his score could influence where he attends middle school. Young said she had reserved judgment about the state tests because she knew that parents and educators had raised concerns with the state last year, the first to have the exams tied to the tougher Common Core standards.

“We were willing to give them another chance this year,” she said. “We wanted to be open-minded because we thought things would change, and they obviously haven’t.”

Adams 14 Superintendent Pat Sanchez, center, prepares to address the State Board of Education April 10, 2014. He is joined by Assistant Superintendent Kandy Steel, right, and the district’s board president Robert Vashaw.
At P.S. 29, students and families shared their reactions to this year’s tests on posters outside the school this morning.
Nicholas Garcia

Fagin said that with Fariña at the helm, she expects the city Department of Education to improve the testing situation for families over time.

“I think the stakes for children are being lowered,” Fagin said. “I just absolutely know that there’s conversation and doing right by children is what’s at the forefront.”

But while Fariña has indicated that she wants to untie test scores and grade promotion standards, something that legislators have now mandated, she has not yet set a new promotion policy, leaving families unsure about the true stakes of this year’s tests.

At P.S. 321, Sonia de Beaufort said she considers tests a part of life, however unpleasant they might be. Her son Jonathan, a fifth-grader, said he found this year’s English test to be confusing.

“The questions were not really well-written,” he said. “You don’t really understand what they’re asking.”

But he said he was torn about whether they should not be administered at all, as some critics have demanded.

“The good side,” he said, “is that the test prepared you for the tests that will come in the future, like the SAT and in the eighth grade.”

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