Pro-tester

Merryl Tisch: Opting out of the state exams is a ‘terrible mistake’

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch with then-State Education Commissioner John King in 2014. Tisch said she would "think twice" about opting into the state tests if she were a parent with a student with special needs.

Parents who keep their children from taking the annual state exams are making a “terrible mistake,” Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said in a speech last week where she urged district officials to explain to families why testing is important.

With less than a month before students start taking the English and math tests, which are used to rate teachers and schools as well as track student progress, Tisch said the state will try to dissuade parents from boycotting the exams. Last year, up to 60,000 students opted out of the tests statewide, while 1,925 did so in New York City — a tiny fraction of the city’s test takers, but a more than four-fold increase from the previous year.

“I believe that test refusal is a terrible mistake because it eliminates important information about how our kids are doing,” Tisch said at a New York State Council of School Superintendents conference March 9 in Albany, according to her prepared remarks. She added that the state would not “force” students to take the exams, but “we are going to continue to help students and parents understand that it is a terrible mistake to refuse the right to know.”

Tisch’s comments come amid a rancorous statewide debate over testing reignited by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal this year to dramatically increase the weight of test scores in state-mandated teacher evaluations. The state and city teachers unions fiercely oppose that plan, as do many of the parents and educators who argued during city-wide rallies last week that the proposal is unfair to teachers and will lead to even more test preparation in schools.

Tisch, who has also called for test scores to play a greater role in teacher ratings, addressed those concerns in her speech. She said she agrees that the tests themselves could be improved, but said parents who boycott the exams are opposed to the very idea of judging educators based on student test scores.

“They have said they want to bring down the whole system on which adult accountability is based — even if only a little bit — on evidence of student learning,” she said.

Tisch went on to argue that annual testing is vital to see how well schools are helping students meet the demands of the new Common Core standards, and whether the state’s “multi-billion dollar investment in education” is paying off.

“We don’t refuse to go to the doctor for an annual check-up,” she said, adding that most people also do not refuse to get vaccinated. “We should not refuse to take the test.”

Brooklyn New School and the Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies held a joint rally last week as part of city-wide protests of Gov. Cuomo's education policies.
PHOTO: Justin Weiner
Brooklyn New School and the Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies held a joint rally last week as part of city-wide protests of Gov. Cuomo’s education policies.

Kemala Karmen, who opted her two children out of last year’s tests, said it is “insulting” and “condescending” for Tisch to suggest that parents need test scores to know how well their children are doing in school. She said that reviewing her daughters’ class work and speaking with their teachers offers a much richer and more accurate picture of their progress than the standardized tests, which she said are flawed and overly time consuming.

One of her daughters is a fifth grader at the Brooklyn New School, an elementary school in the borough’s District 15, a hotbed of anti-testing activism. About 80 percent of students in tested grades at Brooklyn New School opted out last year, and 75 families have already turned in letters stating their plans to do so this year, Karmen said. She said Tisch’s comments suggest that state officials are worried many families will boycott the tests again this year.

“It’s obvious they’re scared,” Karmen said. “This is growing.”

In contrast to Tisch, city schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña has expressed mixed views about the use of test scores. She said they should count for no more than 30 percent of a teacher’s rating, rather than the 50 percent Cuomo has proposed, and she changed the city’s school report cards to emphasize other measures in addition to test scores.

But while she has told principals to respect the decision of parents who keep their children from taking the exams, she said she personally feels it is important for students to get used to taking tests.

“I want to be very clear, I do believe in the test,” Fariña said last week on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show. “I think kids will be tested throughout all their lives, and I think meeting challenges is part of what they need to do.”

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.