'Big For Us'

Amid a statewide surge, city’s opt-out movement is small but growing

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
A protest in 2014 at P.S. 321 in Park Slope against the state English exams.

As students wrapped up this week’s state English exams, advocates said more city parents than ever refused to let their children take the tests at schools with active “opt-out” movements, while other parents brought the boycott to schools that are new to the cause.

In District 15, Brooklyn’s opt-out hotspot, P.S. 321 saw its refusal rate rocket from about 4 percent last year to 36 percent this year, and P.S. 58 went from one boycotter to 50, parents and teachers said. Meanwhile, in southeast Brooklyn, an area not usually associated with anti-testing fervor, 10 students for the first time handed in opt-out letters at P.S. 203.

“It’s small,” said parent Charmaine Dixon, “but it’s big for us, because it’s never happened before.”

Advocates were still gathering city opt-out numbers Thursday, and while some predicted an increase from last year’s total of about 1,900 families that formally refused the exams, they will still represent a tiny fraction of the roughly 420,000 city test-takers. A spokeswoman said the education department would not have a final opt-out count until the tests, which are given in grades three through eight, are “fully processed.” (Students take the math tests next week.)

The city’s refusal rate will also be dwarfed by the percentages in several suburban and upstate districts, where some reports said the majority of students sat out the tests. Across the state, more than 155,000 students out of about 1.1 million eligible test-takers may have refused this week’s exams, according to an unofficial tally Thursday morning by the group United to Counter the Core, which opposes the Common Core standards and their assessments. Last year, 49,000 students did not take the English tests, according to state officials.

While noting the city’s comparatively small numbers, advocates stressed that the refusal movement has spread outside Brooklyn and Manhattan’s liberal bastions to a smattering of schools in other parts of the city, sometimes despite resistance from principals and teachers. Advocates, parents, and teachers said the growth reflects some parent’s long-standing wariness about the value and validity of standardized tests, which hardened this year after Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed tying teachers’ ratings even more closely to students’ scores.

They added that some parents decided it was safer to boycott the tests this year following city policy changes that shrank the role of test scores in decisions to promote students to the next grade or admit them to certain middle schools. Still, the advocates acknowledged that the eye-popping opt-out figures from other parts of the state made them reluctant to release their latest citywide counts.

“Part of the apprehension,” said parent and opt-out organizer Janine Sopp, “is that our numbers are not going to be Long Island numbers.”

As some city schools dived even deeper into the refusal waters this year — for example, the Earth School in the East Village went from 52 to 72 percent of students sitting out the exams, a teacher said — others tried dipping in their toes. Nine schools out of 100 that were contacted in the Bronx and Staten Island reported having parents opt out for the first time this year, according to Jody Alperin, a parent member of the group NYC Opt Out. (Not all the schools responded.)

Still, the vast majority of students took the tests. In some cases, parents worried that skipping the exams could keep their children from getting into selective schools. Despite the policy change, middle schools with admission policies can still base up to 49 percent of student rankings on their scores — and some parents fear that scores weigh even more heavily in practice.

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

Meanwhile, some administrators have warned parents who inquired about opting out that students may have to attend summer school or take different tests, and that schools could lose money, advocates said. And some teachers warned that their ratings could suffer, the advocates added. (Chancellor Carmen Fariña has told principals to explain the value of the state tests to parents, but respect their choice if they decide to opt out.)

At some schools, educators participated in panel discussions or sent letters home in which they openly shared with parents their concern that the state tests do a poor job measuring student growth and teacher effectiveness. But in other schools, educators said they were ordered not to share such views.

After several students in one Bronx classroom opted out for the first time this year, the principal told the teacher she would face disciplinary charges if he found that she had encouraged them to do so, according to the teacher who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid retaliation. (She denied urging students to boycott.) Theresa Cardazone, a sixth-grade social studies teacher at I.S. 281 in Brooklyn, said such threats stop some teachers from giving parents even basic information about opting out.

“The parents are not informed,” she said, “and we’re not allowed to give information.”

Teachers who back the opt-out movement have criticized their union leaders for declining to endorse the boycotts, as the state teachers union recently did. While the head of New York State United Teachers recently recorded a robocall telling members that parents have a right to opt out, United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew warned members at a meeting this week that test refusal could jeopardize the city’s federal funding, according to attendees who said he also affirmed parents’ right to make that decision. (In a statement, Mulgrew said the union shares parents’ concerns about high-stakes testing, and blamed Cuomo’s education policies for the rise in boycotts.)

The city gets about $900 million in federal education funds, and one condition is that at least 95 percent of students in tested grades take the annual exams. If a school or district dips below that threshold, then the state education department must “consider” possible sanctions, one of which is withholding federal funds, officials said. (Advocates said sanctions can only kick in after three years, but a state education department spokesman did not confirm that when asked.)

Spokesman Jonathan Burman said the agency would consider withholding money “in the most egregious cases,” but that any sanctions would be determined on a “case by case basis, taking into account the degree and length of time the district has failed to meet participation rate.” A federal spokeswoman said that agency has never had to withhold money due to the 95-percent rule “yet.”

Jody Alperin, the NYC Opt Out member whose children attend P.S. 10 in South Park Slope, where advocates believe the number of boycotters shot up to 60 this year from one last year, called the talk of sanctions “scare tactics.”

“They’re using semantics,” she said, “to be as scary as they can.”

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.”