Dear Teacher, Johnny Is Skipping the Test
By SONI SANGHA
Originally Published October 12, 2012. The New York Times
LATER this month, children at 169 New York City elementary and middle schools will, for the second time in a calendar year, take a 40-minute “field test” in math and English language arts to determine which questions will go on future state standardized exams.
Lori Chajet’s daughter will not be among them, though the tests are scheduled to be given at her school, Public School 321, in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Nor will many students at Public School 261 in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, or children at schools across District 6 in northern Manhattan.
Ms. Chajet’s objection is not to testing itself, but to the way tests are being used to evaluate schools and teachers.
“I want my school to use tests to help instruction, to help find out if kids don’t know fractions,” she said. “I don’t want my child to feel like her score will decide if her teacher has a job or not.”
Ms. Chajet is one of a small but growing number of parent activists in New York City opposed to the system’s emphasis on high-stakes testing. Many of them took part in a boycott of the field tests in June, when parents at 47 public elementary and middle schools of the 1,029 tested had their children sit them out. In their eyes, it was a win-win situation: Children who skipped the field tests did not risk punitive action or potential harm to their school’s grade on the city’s progress reports, while their parents could make a statement against the tests.
Field testing is not a new concept. In the last round of state tests, future test questions were embedded into the actual exams, said Tom Dunn, spokesman for the State Education Department. But trying out a large number of questions requires multiple versions of an exam, and New York, to save money, printed a limited number of versions of the actual test in the last go-round. To try out enough sample questions would have required lengthening the exams substantially. The solution, officials said, is to use stand-alone field tests.
The tests are not cheap: Pearson, the company that creates the standardized exams and the field tests, charged the state about $7 million for testing services for the 2012 calendar year — 30 percent of that budget went toward field testing.
The urgency to create new questions is heightened because the state has adopted a new core curriculum. The existing standardized tests no longer reflect what New York’s children are learning and do not accurately assess instruction, according to Adina Lopatin, deputy chief academic officer in the New York City Education Department. To change the exam, the state needs to change the questions.
“We think the testing will have a positive impact in instruction across the city this year,” Ms. Lopatin said.
THE anti-testing activists are not so sure. Last spring, Martha Foote remembers, her son, an avid Yankees fan, would come home looking sullen after taking standardized tests in school. He was not allowed to play or read if he finished an exam early, so he would hold imaginary ballgames in his head, he said. Ms. Foote stopped asking about school and started asking about the games. Occasionally, he would shake his head dejectedly and say: “Not so good. The Yankees lost.”
She became convinced that the emphasis on standardized tests was ruining her son’s experience at school. Other parents at P.S. 321, and schools like it, felt the same way. They talked about their concerns on the sidelines of soccer fields and during dance classes. And they came together in groups like Parent Voices, New York, to which Ms. Foote belongs, to make themselves heard.
Anti-testing activists say their movement is not geared exclusively at politicians or school officials, though they have gotten Assemblyman James F. Brennan, a Brooklyn Democrat, to sponsor amendments to buy the state time to reconsider whether tests should be used to evaluate teachers. They have also gotten a resolution in front of the City Council that, if passed, would call for the state to re-examine school accountability and testing policies.
That is not enough, testing opponents say. They want to bring parents from across the city into their movement. While they do not expect to get a critical mass of boycotters this fall, their progress can be seen in the outcropping of new committees at city schools’ parent associations with the words “community” or “action” in their names.
Jen Nessel leads the newly formed Community Action Committee of the P.A. at the East Village Community School in Manhattan. The group came together after the field tests in June, when nearly all parents in the school signed a letter, delivered to the principal, stating that they would decline to have their children take the test.
“We had this overwhelming sense that we need to do something,” Ms. Nessel said.
Like many of the schools that have been centers for this movement, East Village Community routinely does well in its annual progress report and is in no danger of being shut down because of poor performance on the standardized tests. Most of the schools with activist parents have more white children and are more likely to be middle-class than the system as a whole.
Their goal, the activists say, is to make common cause with parents at struggling schools, with populations that are more likely to be black and Hispanic and poor, and where any opposition to standardized testing — if it exists — has been far less vocal.
“I think there is an opportunity to have more lower-income parents being more visible and more active,” said Andrea Mata, a parent activist who works with a group called Change the Stakes that is opposed to high-stakes testing.
Change the Stakes, which has members in northern Manhattan, said it mailed outreach packets last week to each New York City school being tested. In the packet are informational materials in English and Spanish, including a form that parents can sign and deliver to their principal indicating their intention to opt out of the exam.
Diana Zavala, whose son sat out the field tests at his school in Manhattan in June, worked on the Spanish materials and said her experience in her largely Dominican neighborhood indicated that the battle to sway parents would be hard. “Other parents, for cultural reasons, say, ‘I’m putting a kid in my school’s hands, and it’s O.K.,’ ” she said. “It’s a testing acceptance, and so you have to change those hearts.”
When the latest round of field tests was announced, the parent board at P.S. 321 immediately called for parents to opt out — about 90 percent did last June — and Ms. Foote joked that the school was looking for the list of students who would take the test rather than who would not. Boycotting a field test, Ms. Foote said, “is a safe outlet for anger to be heard.” Few parents are likely to boycott the actual tests when they are given in the spring, though some activists have called for that. “I just don’t know at this point whether we can go any further, ” Ms. Foote said.
Sitting out the real exams can have serious consequences. Andrea Mata’s son opted out of the third-grade English-language exam in the spring. His advancement to the next grade hinged on a portfolio of his work gathered by his teacher that demonstrated skills tested on the state exam, including examples of reading accuracy, comprehension and writing. In addition, he had to take an exam that was much shorter than the state standardized test and included written responses and multiple-choice questions. Ms. Mata said his teacher recommended he be allowed to move on to fourth grade, but the community superintendent disagreed. The Matas were told that he had two options: go through a month of preparatory work and then take the standardized tests when they were re-offered in July, or appeal. They appealed. Their principal advocated on their behalf, and in August, Ms. Mata’s son was promoted.
She said that the family had discussed the risk with their son before collectively deciding what to do. But this year, the exam will help determine where he goes to middle school, and how they will handle the test — and how their son will feel about skipping it — is less certain. “I don’t know what our position on opt-out is going to be this year,” Ms. Mata said, emphasizing that her son would be a major voice in the conversation. “We’re going to have to make this decision as we get closer to the date.”
Officials said they weren’t concerned that large numbers of children would skip the field tests this month. “The numbers of the people who were boycotting in June were small,” Ms. Lopatin, of the city Education Department, said.
But activists say that the boycott is just one step in changing the way schools approach testing and how parents and families fit into the conversation.
“Certainly, at 321 it’s a way to say these are your rights as parents,” Ms. Chajet said. “If you don’t want them to sit for this and you want to do one of the many other enriching things that they can do in school, you have that right. And that’s as important as anything right now. ”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: October 14, 2012
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that future standardized test questions for state exams had been routinely embedded into actual exams. Tom Dunn, spokesman for the State Education Department, said that future questions were embedded in the last round of state tests.