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City Council members want city to give parents opt-out info

Tasked Angel

As schools begin gearing up for this spring’s state exams, two city lawmakers are calling on the city to give parents information about opting their children out of the tests.

City Council Education Chairman Daniel Dromm and Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal plan to introduce a resolution Thursday calling on the education department to add opt-out information to its Parents’ Bill of Rights and Responsibilities. The resolution also says the department should distribute that document to every family at the start of the school year.

The proposal adds to the growing visibility of parents who refuse to let their children sit for the state tests, which factor into student promotion and admissions decisions as well as teacher evaluations. Last year, city parents kept more than 1,900 students from taking the annual exams — a tiny fraction of the city’s test-takers, but a 450 percent increase from the year before.

Rosenthal said the resolution is not meant to make the city endorse test refusal, but to give parents information about opting children out and the consequences. In the past, anti-testing advocates have said that some school administrators told parents they could not keep their children from taking the exams or that their students could be penalized for skipping them.

“We’re not asking the administration to make a statement about testing in general,” said Rosenthal, who represents the Upper West Side. “We’re just saying that something as straightforward as information about opting out of the tests should be clear and accessible to parents.”

While there is no formal provision in the state law that lets families opt out from the annual tests given to students in grades three to eight, the city has an alternative assessment system available for students who miss them. Last year, the city released a guide that said principals should explain the consequences of opting out to parents, but that they must ultimately “respect the parents’ decision.”

Chancellor Carmen Fariña has taken a middle-of-the-road stance. Saying that test scores tell a limited story, she added other measures to her school-quality reports and told educators not to obsess over the exams. But she has been clear that she is not against testing, and suggested that boycotting the tests may not be the best way to fight over-testing.

Students’ scores can impact teachers, since the evaluation system that went into effect last year rates them partly on student scores. Recently, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the scores should count for even more of teachers’ ratings. Many educators have denounced the scores as an unreliable measure of teaching quality, and some have joined the opt-out movement.

But the tests may actually have less of an impact on students this year, since the state passed a law last year banning districts from using the scores as a main factor when deciding whether to promote students to the next grade or admit them into schools. While schools must now use “multiple measures” to make those decisions, tests scores can still be considered.

Education department spokeswoman Devora Kaye did not say whether the city would back the council members’ resolution. She said Fariña has stressed that good teaching is the best test preparation and that the new promotion policy had reduced the weight of test scores.

“Ultimately, life is full of challenges,” Kaye said in a statement, “and this common sense approach will alleviate the pressure of high stakes testing by ensuring that multiple measures including a student’s work throughout the school year are used to determine a child’s readiness for the next grade.”

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