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.”

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.