Opinion: Opting out is the only option

By Leonie Haimson and Jeanette Deutermann
| Aug 18, 2015 |
The state exam results are in, but the big news wasn't the tiny uptick in scores, or the fact that about two-thirds of students continued to fail these exams. Instead, the headlines focused on the huge number of children opting to skip the tests altogether: about 225,000 eligible students in grades three through eight, or 20 percent, refused to take the state tests. In New York City, the percent of opt-outs was far fewer – about 1.6 percent – but even there, the number tripled compared with the year before.

Almost immediately, the editorial boards expressed their disapproval. The New York Times claimed that the large number of opt-outs “could hurt efforts to document and close the achievement gap between low-income and minority students and more privileged students.” Yet we have had 13 years of federally mandated testing through No Child Left Behind, more than a decade of high-stakes testing in New York City and three years of Common Core exams without any significant narrowing of the achievement gap, which only grew wider this year.

The Times editorial was also factually incorrect, claiming that rather than test scores, “most of the (teacher’s) rating (will) be based on other factors like classroom observations." Gov. Andrew Cuomo, despite admitting that these scores are so unreliable they should not be included in student transcripts, successfully pushed through a new law mandating that if a teacher is rated ineffective on student test scores, he or she cannot be rated effective overall. 

The state assessments have been used in a punitive way, to close schools and fire teachers. The fear of these consequences has led much of the curriculum to be dominated by test prep, with low-quality worksheets supplanting art, music and project-based learning.

The cut scores (or passing rates) have also been set in advance to falsely label the vast majority of students across the state as failing. Even in communities on Long Island, where more than 90 percent of students graduate from high school and go on to four-year colleges, two-thirds of parents have been told that their children will not be “college and career ready.”

It is true that in some of the large and small cities, schools have been struggling for years with lowperformance and high dropout rates. What those schools need, though according to the state’s highest court, is not high-stakes testing but equitable funding and smaller classes, which research shows will narrow the achievement gap. Yet the state refuses to fund schools equitably and class sizes have sharply increased – to the highest levels in fifteen years in New York City in the early grades.

The tests provide no useful diagnostic information to identify students’ weaknesses or strengths, as their teachers and principals will readily admit. Individual student scores are released four to six months after the exams are administered. Educators tell parents that they cannot use the results of these tests to inform instruction in any way.

Why should parents put their children through this time-consuming, anxiety-producing and pointless exercise? When parents are repeatedly ignored by policymakers, opting out is their only option.

For months leading up to the assessments, and especially during the two weeks of testing, parents report their children show signs of anxiety, sleep problems, physical symptoms, school phobias and attention difficulties. This phenomenon has been growing among children as young as 8 years old. To add insult to injury, for the last three years the exams have become overly long and confusing, with incoherent questions like the pineapple passage on theeighth-grade exam in 2010, and the talking snake passage on thethird-grade test this year. Our youngest learners sit for up to 18 hours of state testing.

The most vulnerable children – students with disabilities and English language learners – are asked to endure exams that are so inappropriate even the state asked for waivers from the federal government, which were denied. Only 3.9 percent of English language learners and 5.7 percent of students with disabilities passed these exams. The bar should be set high for all children, but at an appropriate level for each child.

Parents have become increasingly frustrated at watching the alarming changes in their children and their education, along with the waste of precious tax dollars. More than 220,000 New York state parents chose to have their children refuse the state exams this year, in both high-performing suburban districts and struggling city schools, to express their anger. Many teachers joined parents in the fight to protect their students and the integrity of their profession. The question is, will the powers that be listen and make the necessary changes? If not, the number of opt-outs will continue to grow until parents’ voices are heard by policymakers, the tests are improved, the punitive, high-stakes exams removed, and real teaching and learning return to our classrooms.

Leonie Haimson is the executive director of Class Size Matters; Jeanette Deutermann is the leader of Long Island Opt Out. They are members of the NYS Allies for Public Education steering committee, a statewide coalition of more than 40 parent, educator and advocacy groups.