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To test or not to test? That’s the question families face as students head into state exams this week

Alan Petersime

Starting this week, thousands of New York City students in grades 3-8 will sit for the state’s controversial standardized tests — a gauge of student progress that has become an educational lightning rod in recent years.

Across the state, parents have been opting their students out of the tests in record numbers to protest what they say is an educational culture too focused on test preparation. Statewide, the percentage of students opting out was 21 percent last year, while the city’s rate was much lower at less than 3 percent refusing to sit for exams, an uptick from the year before.

Testing protests contributed to a larger sea change in education policy, including the state’s decision to revise the Common Core learning standards and stop using grades 3-8 math and English test scores in teacher evaluations. Officials also made some changes to the tests last year, including shortening them and providing students with unlimited time.

So what’s new this year? State Education Department officials announced this November they would not make significant changes to exams this year in order to allow for stable year-over-year comparisons.

Some supporters of opt-out, including the chair of the City Council’s education committee, Daniel Dromm, are pushing for families to know their rights about refusing the test. The state education commissioner has said parents need to make their own choices on the matter.

“It’s up to parents to decide if their children should take the tests,” State Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said in a statement. “We want them to have the all the facts so they can make an informed decision.”

Here’s what you need to know as students start taking English exams on Tuesday.

How much do state tests matter — and what are they used for?

  • They matter less than they once did, but Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has cited test scores as one of many factors the city uses to determine whether a school should close.
  • State policymakers have decided that grades 3-8 math and English exam scores will no longer count in teacher evaluations.
  • Meanwhile, the city has reduced the tests’ influence on school ratings and decisions about whether students move on to the next grade.
  • The state is is currently deciding how test scores will be used to judge schools under the Every Student Succeeds Act, a new federal education law. There is no official plan yet, but early signs indicate policymakers want to use much more than just state test scores.

Why are state tests so controversial?

  • When the state adopted new Common Core-aligned standards, the tests became more difficult to pass, just as the stakes for teachers and schools grew.
  • The state began tying teacher evaluations to test scores.
  • Critics argue teachers have been forced to narrow their curriculum to focus on test preparation.
  • Many teachers are frustrated by the continued emphasis on testing. Others see the tests as helpful to gauging student progress.

What has the state changed in recent years?

  • The tests were slightly shorter last year.
  • Students were also allotted unlimited time to complete them last year — a change meant to reduce student stress.
  • State test scores in English leapt after last year’s changes. Elia said that meant the scores could not be compared “apples-to-apples” to the year before, but city officials still celebrated the scores with little mention of the changes.
  • That led some to ask, how should we use the scores? And what does it mean for evaluating struggling schools?
  • Since 2015, a greater number of teachers have been involved in reviewing test questions, state officials said.
  • In November, state officials announced they did not plan to make significant changes to the tests this year. (First, they announced they would keep the tests stable for two years, but then backed off that decision the next day.)

What’s up with the opt-out movement?

  • Last year, opt-out percentages were 21 percent statewide, fairly flat from the year before.
  • Though much smaller, the number of families sitting out of exams in New York City did increase substantially. In 2016, 2.4 percent of city students sat out the English exams — a 71 percent jump over 2015. And 2.76 percent opted out of math, a 53 percent spike.
  • Statewide, opt-out students in 2015 were more likely to be white and less likely to be poor, and liberal areas in Brooklyn and Manhattan saw the city’s highest opt-out numbers.
  • Leaders of the the opt-out movement want to broaden their approach to state politics. Nationally, a recent study found that many members of the movement aren’t parents at all, but teachers and education advocates.
  • Despite the changes enacted last year, opt-out advocates aren’t satisfied. They still want substantially shorter tests with no consequences for schools, teachers or students.
  • A federal mandate says 95 percent of students must take state tests, but New York state officials indicated last year they did not plan to withhold funding for schools or districts that break that rule. Elia reiterated that point to Chalkbeat at a recent Board of Regents meeting, saying she has no desire to do so now or in the future.

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