Teachers Take on Testing

As opt-out movement builds among parents, educators play a growing role

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Takiema Smith, a parent at the Brooklyn New School, opted her child out of state exams in 2014.

For Jia Lee, a critic of the state’s standardized tests who teaches at the Earth School and has a son there, the decision to opt her child out of this year’s exams was a “no-brainer.”

But Lee felt she could do more, so she and two of her colleagues at the East Village public school decided to refuse to administer this year’s state tests.

The teachers had already drafted a letter to the schools chancellor explaining their decision when they were called into their school office last week. Enough families had opted their children out of the tests, the teachers were told, that they did not need to proctor the exam — the teachers’ planned boycott was trumped by their students’. So on Tuesday, the first of six state-exam days, all but a handful of Lee’s students worked on a project about immigration instead of taking the test.

As the number of parents who opt out their children grows, and as test scores play a role in teacher evaluations for the first time, educators like Lee are being drawn into their protest. Some are simply providing logistical information to parents; others are sharing their concerns about over-testing; and still others, including Lee, are opting out their own children or, in some cases, even encouraging other parents to.

“We’re hoping that more teachers will realize that there’s empowerment in saying, ‘We don’t want to be a part of this,’” Lee said.

The number of city families opting out of state tests this year is poised to hit a record high, one year after new tests tied to the Common Core standards resulted in vastly lower scores. While just 276 students opted out citywide last year, nearly 640 students have already opted out this year just among six schools in Brooklyn and Manhattan, according to parents and teachers. The advocacy group Change the Stakes estimates that 1,000 students or more may decline to take this year’s test — a tiny portion of the city’s test-takers, but a huge increase from years past.

Many families are opting out despite pushback from their schools. At least 50 parents told Change the Stakes that school administrators discouraged them or told them children who skip the tests might be penalized, according to parent leader Nancy Cauthen. Responding to the growing tension within schools, Chancellor Carmen Fariña — who herself has expressed reservations about test boycotts — last week told principals to “respect the parents’ decision” if they decide to keep their child from taking the tests.

But at many of the opt-out hotspots, educators are offering support — both explicit and tacit — to families that are choosing to have their children sit out the tests.

Several schools held information sessions for parents who expressed interest in opting students out of the tests. In most cases, educators at those schools were “scrupulous” about offering information about testing while remaining neutral on the question of opting out, said Jessica Blatt, a parent at Brooklyn’s Arts and Letters Academy, where 83 percent of third graders are not taking the tests.

But educators’ comments at the meetings signaled that they were sympathetic to testing concerns — and emphasized that there would likely be no significant consequences for families who opted out, according to people who attended and records of the meetings.

Parents at the Earth School organized meetings where middle school principals explained that students’ lack of test scores would not be held against them in the admissions process, Lee said. At another forum for parents, Lee and other teachers described the impact of testing on their classrooms, she said. Some 57 percent of Earth School students are not taking this year’s tests.

Parents who are boycotting this year's state exams gathered Tuesday outside the Brooklyn New School.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Parents who are boycotting this year’s state exams gathered Tuesday outside the Brooklyn New School.

At Brooklyn New School, where 80 percent of students are opting out, Principal Anna Allanbrook shared a litany of concerns about the tests at public forums and in letters to parents this year. The tests last too long, cost too much, do not provide useful data for educators, and can “affect the careers” of teachers, she said at a meeting in September. In January, Allanbrook told parents that other schools with large opt-out numbers “were not punished” and that “children who opt out will not have a negative impact” on teacher evaluations, according to the minutes of parent meetings in January. Last year, when Allanbrook was less outspoken about the tests, only four families opted out. (Allanbrook declined to be interviewed for this story.)

A presentation by Arts and Letters staff noted that teachers will still have data from “ongoing, authentic assessments” even if students skip the state tests.

And at a public forum on testing at Manhattan’s Institute for Collaborative Education in February, a teacher described problems with the state tests for both students and teachers, according to minutes of the meeting prepared by parents who attended. Then the teacher added, “Opting out is a great way to have our voices heard,” the minutes say.

About 75 percent of students in ICE’s testing grades opted out of this year’s tests.

Encouraging families to boycott state tests comes with possible costs for educators. A group of educators who belong to the Movement of Rank-and-File Educators, a minority faction within the teachers union, have said publicly that they are supporting parents who opt out and colleagues who choose not to administer the tests. But their press release also urges teachers not to take a stand against testing without first getting legal counsel.

So some educators are registering their opposition to the tests not in public forums or rallies but behind the scenes, in private meetings with city officials. Teachers from several of the Brooklyn schools with high opt-out rates recently met with top education department officials to discuss their concerns with standardized testing.

“It was a recognition of the harms that an overemphasis on high-stakes testing is having on kids, teachers, and schools,” said City Councilman Brad Lander, who attended the meeting.

An education department spokeswoman said the department would continue to listen to concerns about the state tests.

“It is of paramount importance for our schools to have an environment that is respectful of the diversity of opinion surrounding this issue as we support our principals, teachers and maintain a sense of calm for our students,” said the spokeswoman, Devora Kaye.

That tone has come naturally to some school communities. When parents at Hamilton Heights School in Washington Heights decided to opt their children out, they brought in the advocacy group Time Out From Testing to explain the process to teachers who previously knew little about the movement, according to parent Kimberly Casteline.

Casteline said she did not expect the school to promote test refusal, but simply to enable parents to make that decision — as she said half had.

“What we expect is for the administration to carry out the wishes of parents,” she said. “And they have been absolutely willing to do that.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified the advocacy group that spoke to teachers at Hamilton Heights School.

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Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”

 

Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”

 

Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”

 

Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”

 

Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”

 

Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”

moving forward

After Confederate flag dispute at Colorado football game, schools pledge to bring students together

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

Acknowledging “we may never have a conclusive picture of what happened,” two Colorado school districts sought to move past a controversy over whether a Confederate flag was displayed at a football game and open a conversation between the two school communities.

The principal of Manual High, Nick Dawkins, wrote in a community letter over the weekend that the visiting Weld Central High School team “displayed a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the (Friday night) game, offending many members of the Manual community.”

Officials from Denver Public Schools and Weld County School District Re-3J released a joint letter Tuesday saying that based “on what we have learned to date, however, the Weld Central team did not display the Confederate flag.” At the same time, it said, multiple Manual eyewitnesses “reported seeing spectators who attempted to bring a Confederate flag into the game and clothing with flag images.”

Going forward, students from the two schools — one rural and one urban — will participate in a student leadership exchange that has student leaders visit each other’s schools and communities to “share ideas and perspectives,” the letter says.

“At a time in our country when so many are divided, we want our students instead to come together, share ideas and learn together,” says the letter, which is signed by the principals of both schools and the superintendents of both school districts.

The alleged incident took place at a time when issues of race, social injustice, politics and sports are colliding in the United States, making for tough conversations, including in classrooms.

Weld Central’s mascot is a Rebel. Manual, whose mascot is the Thunderbolts, is located in one of Denver’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

Dawkins in his initial community letter also said “the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field,” and that three Manual players were injured, including one who went to the hospital with a leg injury. He also said some Manual players reported that Weld Central players “taunted them with racial slurs.”

Weld Central officials vehemently denied that their team displayed the flag. In addition, they said in their own community letter they had “no evidence at this point that any of our student athletes displayed racially motivated inappropriate behavior.”

They said district officials “do not condone any form of racism,” including the Confederate flag.

Weld Central fans told the Greeley Tribune that they didn’t see any Confederate flag.

Read the full text below.