Some New York schools see more families opting out of state testing

Rosa Diaz gave her fifth grade daughter a choice ahead of last month’s state English test: Did she feel ready to take it or did she want to sit on it?

“I believe in you,” the East Harlem mother recalled telling her daughter. “I know you can do whatever you want, but I want you to tell me if you feel ready.”

The 10-year-old, who is on the autism spectrum, told her mum she felt ready. His school, PS 171 Patrick Henry, had done a fair amount of test prep.

But after the first day of testing, the girl came home exhausted, Diaz said. She immediately took a shower and went straight to bed without eating. The same thing happened on the second day. Things were worse for some of his peers, Diaz said, with some kids staying after school for hours trying to complete the exam.

Now, with the state math tests approaching April 26-27, Diaz has made up her own mind. She will make her child sit. And several other parents at her school are doing the same, Diaz said.

This year marks the first time, to Diaz’s knowledge, that parents in PS 171 have opted out of having their children tested (not counting last year’s one-time opt-in policy). Some other schools in the neighborhood are also seeing their first families pull out, according to parents and headteachers. The small but growing numbers are notable since the opt-out movement has generally been more popular in white, affluent suburbs than in New York. PS 171 students are predominantly black and Latino.

“Parents don’t know what it’s like to opt out, especially if they speak another language,” said Diaz, a parent leader with District 4’s Community Education Council who has briefed other Spanish-speaking parents. of their right to withdraw and understand finding ways to communicate with families who speak various African languages.

The state generally does not report opt-out numbers until the exam results are shared in late summer, city officials said. But Diaz’s experience suggests that concerns about student anxiety and academic challenges after prolonged learning disruptions could prompt more families to say no to testing.

In addition to state tests, students took other assessments throughout the year in English and math as part of the city’s school recovery plan. The purpose of the assessments, city officials said, was to understand where there might be learning gaps. Federal officials declined to cancel state testing last year for similar reasons: They hoped to understand how students fared academically during the pandemic.

National testing data shows dismal results, with progress stalled, especially for young students. Black, Latino and low-income students have been hardest hit. But experts have also questioned the value of recent New York state exam data, as last year’s unusually low turnout makes comparison difficult.

New York City Schools Chancellor David Banks recently denounced the time schools spend preparing for standardized exams, saying schools have become like ‘test mills’ to the detriment of the arts. and other courses that engage students, as well as social-emotional learning. .

The tests, however, are federally mandated, and schools with low scores may end up on state lists of schools needing more oversight.

U.S. Representative Jamaal Bowman, a former college principal from the Bronx who was a strong supporter of opting out of state testing, said he was drafting legislation to remove the federal requirement that states administer tests. standardized tests. He would prefer to let states choose alternatives such as testing only once in elementary, middle and high school. He also wants to decouple standardized testing from Title I funding.

“Why do we spend so much time testing? This does not allow us to reach our goal of 100% literacy and close the achievement gap,” Bowman said. “There are more complex challenges, like climate change, racial injustice, inequality. We must prepare children for this world.

Kemala Karmen, a parent activist with grassroots group NYC Opt Out, lamented the time children were spending on tests this year, between state tests and the English and math assessments the city requires schools administer three times a year.

Karmen said many educators told him they either didn’t get the results of these assessments or received little training to interpret them to change their practice. State English and math test results are only released after the end of the school year.

“Even if you think learning loss is real, how is taking the time to take tests going to help?” said Karman.

She also said she had heard more reports from families of schools pressuring their children to take the tests, falsely saying they needed the results because of the learning loss associated with the COVID.

Some districts are more open to opt-out

Some New York City schools and districts are more supportive of parents being able to withdraw their children. In East Harlem’s District 4, a former superintendent tried to quash talks about opting out of state testing, parent leader Kaliris Salas-Ramirez said. But the current superintendent has supported discussions on the subject. And Salas-Ramirez — who not only serves as chair of the District 4 Community Education Council, but was also recently nominated by the Manhattan Borough President to serve on the city’s panel on education policy — has helped raise awareness in his district.

“Over the past two years, we have had conversations at our [Community Education Council] meetings, and the superintendent encouraged principals to engage the parent community,” Salas-Ramirez said.

At Central Park East I, where her son attends, about 65% of students dropped out, Salas-Ramirez said. In some years, up to 80% of children refused the test, but the numbers dropped after the school landed on a state list of comprehensive support and improvement schools.

At Neighborhood School, a small school in the East Village where nearly 75% of students are Latino or white, about 94% of children opted out of the tests, according to Peter Liam, the father of a fifth-grade student who led the charge organizing families around the opt-out. That was up from an 80% average in recent years, Liam said.

The school doesn’t do test prep, Liam said, so he gave his daughter samples to see how she felt about taking the exam given her test anxiety. He decided to take her out because she didn’t feel ready. Other parents have followed suit.

“There is safety in numbers,” Liam said.

He acknowledged that some parents still worried about whether failing to take the test would affect college admissions. (This year and last, admissions were lottery-based, but the city has yet to say whether it will allow schools in the future to screen students based on test scores or other metrics.)

Stressed before the test, nervous after

For some children anxious about taking the English exam, things didn’t turn out to be as stressful as expected.

Ahead of this month’s English tests, Heather Osterman-Davis’ fifth-grade son Owen wrote a memo to Banks and the Education Department about the effect of test prep on health mental. Osterman Davis posted the note on Twitter.

Too much test prep harms your mental health,” Owen wrote. “We have been doing the test preparation directly for the past few weeks, only with weekend breaks. His impact on me made me very depressed.

In the end, Owen took the English test and found it “easier” than he had expected and “much more relaxing than test prep,” his mother said.

Now he awaits his results, which shouldn’t arrive until the end of the summer at the earliest.

“It was still a little stressful, but I think I did well,” he said. “But I hate having to wait so long for grades, because it makes me nervous too.”

Amy Zimmer is Chalkbeat New York’s bureau chief. Contact Amy at azimmer@chalkbeat.org.

Edward K. Thompson