Let’s begin with one simple premise: nobody at the New York State Education Department wants to see Opt Out continue to be a significant factor in the Empire State. The United States Department of Education sent a variety of states letters explaining they had an obligation to test 95% of all student in all subgroups without fail, even offering various measures from cajoling to threatening that the states could take to get all of those students to sit down and be tested. After some initial stumbles, NYSED settled on a “kinder and gentler” approach, trying to coax the 20% of eligible families to opt back in to the tests. Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch and Governor Andrew Cuomo quickly ran away from NYSED Commissioner Elia’s suggestion that districts with high opt out might lose funding. In short order, Commissioner Elia affirmed that her office had no intention of withholding funds and admitted that parents had the legal right to refuse to submit their child for the state exams. In the following months, Albany introduced a series of changes to the exams – such as reducing them by a few question and removing time limits – that they hoped with allay parental concerns, and Commissioner Elia’s office put together a “tool kit” for district and schools to use to explain the exams to parents. The information provided for both letters and presentations emphasizes what NYSED sees as positive and necessary aspects of the tests instead of negative consequences for low test participation rates.
Parents and educators may disagree about the significance of the changes and about the accuracy of the information in the state materials, but the strategy was obvious: Gently persuade parents and communities back into the fold. This was certainly a sensible approach considering the pasting Albany took not only on state testing but also on the entire education agenda championed by Governor Cuomo throughout 2015. Even before he managed to bully his plans to use state tests as 50% of teacher evaluations through the Assembly, voters disapproved of his education agenda by extremely wide margins. The Governor took such a pummeling in the polls on education in 2015, that his 2016 budget address only had 364 words on P-12 education that more or less reduced his entire platform to “yadda yadda yadda…teachers are swell.” When it comes to public education in the Empire State, our leaders in Albany have spent most of 2016 trying to pour gallons of honey on their plate full of vinegar.
Someone in New York City did not get the memo, apparently.
Test refusal was not a significant issue in New York City last year, although a handful of schools saw much higher opt out rates than the city in general. But the office of New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina apparently wants to take no chances of it gaining more than a toehold. Pro-testing forces upstate seem happy to rely upon outside groups to carry the “opt in” message and to focus on emphasizing what they see as meeting test protesters part way, but the offices in Tweed aren’t taking any risks that opt out can grow and thrive in the Big Apple. In the run up to the tests, The New York Times reported ongoing and serious negative talk about teachers who spoke out against the tests and in favor of opting out:
At a forum in December, Anita Skop, the superintendent of District 15 in Brooklyn, which had the highest rate of test refusals in the city last year, said that for an educator to encourage opting out was a political act and that public employees were barred from using their positions to make political statements.
On March 7, the teachers at Public School 234 in TriBeCa, where only two students opted out last year, emailed the school’s parents a broadside against the tests. The email said the exams hurt “every single class of students across the school” because of the resources they consumed.
But 10 days later, when dozens of parents showed up for a PTA meeting where they expected to hear more about the tests, the teachers were nowhere to be seen. The school’s principal explained that “it didn’t feel safe” for them to speak, adding that their union had informed them that their email could be considered insubordination. The principal, Lisa Ripperger, introduced an official from the Education Department who was there to “help oversee our meeting.”
Several principals said they had been told by either the schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, or their superintendents that they and their teachers should not encourage opting out. There were no specific consequences mentioned, but the warnings were enough to deter some educators.
One could possibly claim teachers speaking against the tests are engaging in political speech against contract rule – or one could argue they are expressing a professional opinion on the negative impact of testing they see with their own eyes in their own classrooms. Certainly, the letter from PS234 teachers, as described, focuses on the consequences to students’ learning conditions rather than on any political outcome, but DOE is clearly trying to back channel messages to principals and teachers that negative comments about the test are off limits. That would certainly explain an incident at PS 84 in Williamsburg where a principal chastised a fifth grader handing out Opt Out information until the child cried and then herded all third through fifth grade into an impromptu assembly to tell them to “get this opt out stuff out of your head.” The principal went on to tell students not to listen to their parents and that the state exams would make them smarter.
That was not the behavior of a professional educational leader who feels free to allow open discussion of an important issue within the school. For that matter, the principal’s behavior was arguably in violation of long standing case law on students’ first amendment rights within school.
Susan Trout, a Manhattan parent, forwarded a letter that her child’s middle school principal sent to all 8th grade parents, warning them about the consequences of a large number of opt outs:
This is a “low stakes year” for the eighth graders. Their performance on the exams will not be used by the high schools for placement or for admissions. It is not, however, a “low stakes year” for *******. If we do not test 95% of our students, the school will automatically be categorized as a School Under Review by New York State. This will result in a series of measures which may force us to change our curriculum, our staffing decisions and our program. It most certainly comes with close review of the school by the state, along with the paperwork to defend the school’s performance. This may negatively affect the students who will be at ***** for the next couple of years.
According to Ms. Trout, parents in her school who wrote to the principal expressing their desire to opt out of the test were then contacted individually by the school’s parent coordinator with the following message:
Hello. By refusing to participate, you are putting us in jeopardy of no longer being considered a school in good standing. We must have 95% participation to keep our school grade as is. I would ask you to reconsider having your children take the test. It is actually good practice for their high school career since they will be tested a great deal in the college application process!
She then contacted the office of the Public Advocate in New York City for clarification, and got quite a different answer:
Regulations state that if a district has 3 consecutive years failing a SPECIFIC category, then they can be identified. If one year it’s because of special Ed scores, next year participation rates, the next was a whole other category, then no changes. Has to be failure of the SAME category 3 years running. Even the handful of districts that fell below 95% for 4 years in a row (handful in NYS) were still not penalized or labeled. The label forces a plan put in place to fix the category/reason for failure, in this case, a parent boycott. The state knew better than to go forward with any consequence.
Districts that were focus districts last year AND had less than 95% were taken off the list. Doesn’t make sense that % alone would cause them to be labeled. I realize all of the above specifies districts, not schools. However,confirmed by DOE staffer: there is absolutely NO POLICY that says one instance of <95% participation would result in “automatic characterization” of anything by NYS. It’s not an “automatic” process and is in fact based upon the previous 2-3 years in the event that a school falls below 95% in one year.
The information given by DOE to the Public Advocate’s office is diametrically opposed to the information a middle school administration circulated to parents. Ms. Trout asked her parent coordinator about this discrepancy and was told that the information was from a “directive” from the district superintendent. Again, this is completely out of proportion to what any other level of education governance in the state is saying right now, and it is vexing, not because the city administration believes in testing, but because it is relying on incomplete and often misleading means to support the tests.
There was a brief moment, when it looked like the NYC educational bureaucracy was softening a bit. Chancellor Farina was reported as having said in a private meeting that she would consider opting out a child if that child had a certain kind of Individualized Education Plan or was a new arrival in the country with very limited English, and Mayor Bill de Blasio met with opt out advocates in order to hear their views, clarifying that he still thought the tests were important.
Any hope that there was room for openness at Tweed, however, was shut down rapidly as the tests began this week. Chancellor Farina said that her earlier comments were taken “out of context” and she further chastised parents who opt out, saying: “I believe students go to school to be held accountable for their work…What are you saying about your child? What are you saying about your belief in them to do something that they’ve been gearing for all year?” This statement is fairly breathtaking. It is one thing to believe in a system of school accountability that includes standardized testing, although the history of the No Child Left Behind era is pretty clear on this: test based accountability has had 15 years for results and it does not have them. But the Chancellor’s statement frames the accountability tests as objectives of the school year unto themselves. The tests hold students “accountable for their work”? The state standardized accountability test is “something they’ve been gearing for all year”? I can honestly think of few ways of framing this worse than Chancellor Farina just did. My children are preparing for many important things in their education this year – sitting in a standardized exam that takes longer to finish than the LSAT or the MCAT is just about the least important thing they could do.
I suppose — I just suppose — that we could be at least a little grateful for the wild spinning and random lashing out from the Chancellor’s office. NYSED has tinkered a smidgen around the edges of the tests and they’ve taken a softer tone with the public. But there can be no doubt – they want Opt Out to go away so they can keep these tests as the status quo. Chancellor Farina, on the other hand, is being aggressive about her dislike for Opting Out, leading to repeated situations where parents are being told information that is flatly contrary to NYSED’s stated policies. History suggests that this level of overreaction and misdirection aimed at parents backfires. If Opt Out grows in NYC, we might just have the Chancellor to thank for it.