eyes on opt-out

Tripling in size, city’s opt-out movement draws new members from over 160 schools

PHOTO: Justin Weiner

New York City’s small but growing opt-out movement took hold in all five boroughs this year, with groups of students refusing to take state exams in more than 160 schools, according to city data released Wednesday.

More than 7,900 students across the city opted out of at least one of the exams, which cover math and English and are given to students in grades three to eight, according to the city education department. While the boycotters represented less than 2 percent of all eligible test takers, their numbers have more than tripled since last year.

Still, the city’s corps of boycotters was dwarfed by the state’s: About one in five New York students — or roughly 200,000 students out of 1.1 million eligible test takers — refused to take the exams this April, state education officials said.

Top education officials on Wednesday defended the state’s challenging Common Core learning standards and the annual assessments tied to them, despite the unprecedented show of defiance by parents and students, who were backed by many sympathetic educators and openly encouraged by the state teachers union. They also held out the threat that districts and schools with high opt-out numbers could lose federal funding.

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said her agency would consider the public’s concerns, but insisted that the state would be “moving forward with higher standards” and suggested that parents and teachers who support opting out may not grasp the importance of the standards and tests.

“Perhaps there hasn’t been enough information out not only to parents, but perhaps to our own educators on how they can effectively use this information,” she said on a conference call with reporters, referring to the test results.

Parent opposition to testing had been growing but caught fire in 2013 when more difficult Common Core-aligned exams brought students’ scores crashing down, and has been fueled by educators who object to being rated based on those scores. While hostility to the tests is still most widespread in progressive-minded parts of Brooklyn and Manhattan with many higher-income families, students in dozens of schools beyond those opt-out hotspots joined in this year, the data shows.

About 600 students across 25 schools in the Bronx boycotted the math exams, as did about 450 students in more than a dozen Staten Island schools, according to the city. Those figures only include students in schools where 10 or more students who opted out, meaning that the total opt-out counts are probably slightly higher. About half as many students in each borough skipped the English exams. (Citywide, about 1,750 more students opted out of the math tests than English, which could be because the math tests were administered later, giving the boycott more time to simmer.)

[See what schools and districts had the most students opt out of the exams here.]

Still, Brooklyn had the most students opt out, with seven of the 10 schools with the most boycotters based in that borough. Brooklyn’s District 15, which includes Park Slope, saw at least 1,450 students sit out the English exams and 1,660 skip math — far more than any other city district. Statewide, students who opted out were more likely to be white and from wealthier districts, and to have earned non-passing scores on last year’s exams if they took them, officials said.

Nancy Cauthen, a member of the opt-out group Change the Stakes, said that many parents outside the usual anti-testing districts are unaware that they can keep their students from taking the exams, or have faced pressure not to from school administrators worried about the possible impact on their school’s ratings and funding. Still, she said more parents from such districts contacted her group this year asking its members to speak at opt-out informational meetings.

“We had more members doing presentations in Spanish, going to a wider range of schools in terms of income levels,” said Cauthen, whose son skipped this year’s exams at P.S./I.S. 187 in Washington Heights.

Even as the opt-out movement creeps into more corners of the city, the figures released Wednesday also highlighted the relatively small size of the city’s opt-out movement compared to those in many other districts across New York.

Opt-out advocates cite many reasons: the city has many high-need schools where staff and parents may worry about losing federal funding; unlike other districts, student promotion to the next grade was long tied to test scores, and certain middle and high schools still consider scores in admissions; and, in contrast to the state teachers union, the city union did not endorse opting out.

Mayor Bill de Blasio gave his own explanation Wednesday, saying that parents were encouraged last year when the city changed the promotion policy to include other measures of student progress besides just test scores. While city schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña has instructed principals to respect the will of parents, she also said bluntly Wednesday: “I don’t believe in opt-out. I believe that everyone needs to be assessed.”

It was still not clear Wednesday what penalties, if any, city schools with many test refusers might face.

Federal rules require at least 95 percent of students in tested grades to take the annual exams, and say that districts could lose some federal funding if they repeatedly fail to get their schools to meet that threshold. A U.S. education department spokeswoman said Wednesday that it is the state’s responsibility to impose sanctions on districts. But a spokesman for the state agency said federal officials were the ones considering penalizing schools and districts, which the state believes “would be wrong to do.”

Commissioner Elia said she has had several conversations on this matter with federal officials, who suggested that they could reduce funding for districts with low test-participation rates.

“That is an option they have,” she told reporters, “but they have not indicated whether they’re doing that or not.”

If any teachers had fewer than 16 students take the tests, then alternative measures of student learning would be substituted for test scores in their evaluations, state officials said.

Jia Lee, a teacher at the Earth School in Manhattan where more than 100 students boycotted the exams, said the city’s expanding opt-out movement reflects a “growing ground-up awareness of parents, teachers and students who don’t want to be evaluated based on an invalid metric.”

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.”