eyes on opt-out

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

PHOTO: 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.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

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.”