Accountability · Blog

Get Over Yourselves and Opt In!

If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it. That’s a rule many live by, but it rings especially true in our schools.

That’s New York City father Jean Holybrice explaining why his children are participating in  annual state assessments in language arts and math. Data on participation rates in NY’s annual state assessments are just starting to roll in but early indications are that more parents than last year share Mr. Holybrice’s sentiments.

That’s bad news for anti-testing lobbyists like leaders of the New York State Union of Teachers (NYSUT) and New York Allies for Public Education but good news for those  who value accountability, transparency, and meaningful information on school quality. Despite ample resources devoted to opt-out propaganda by NYSUT (the union purchased the billboards and lawn signs for New York State Allies for Education), indications are that 2017 opt-out rates, with a few exceptions, are trending downward.

From the Poughkeepsie Journal:

Executive Director Steve Sigmund of High Achievement New York, a coalition of groups including various business organizations that support the Common Core, said: “Day one reports show a continued trend against opt outs and towards even greater participation, and that’s good for students and for New York’s future. These assessments provide an annual check-up for students, identify achievement gaps so they can be closed, and have gotten better through listening to the concerns of parents and educators.”

And Chalkbeat reports,

The number of families refusing to take the controversial tests seems to have decreased slightly in Rochester, the Hudson Valley, Buffalo and Albany. In Long Island, typically an opt-out hotbed, the rates thus far seem similar to last year. It’s still too soon to tell in New York City, but the number of families refusing to take tests has been traditionally been much lower in the city than in the rest of the state.

A few examples: According to data collected by High Achievement New York, in 2016 25% of students in South Colonie Public Schools (Albany County) opted out of ELA tests; this year it’s 15%. In Pine Plains Central District (Dutchess County) in 2016 46% of students opted out of ELA tests; this year it’s 31%. In Brockport Public Schools (Monroe County) in 2016 36% of students opted out of ELA tests; this year it’s 26%. Even on Long Island, the epicenter of opt-out fever, Carle Place opt-out rates dropped 7%, Malverne dropped 14%, and Valley Stream dropped 5%.

There are 728 school districts in New York State. While numbers are still incomplete — some districts won’t report in until the three-morning testing period for ELA ends on Thursday — High Achievement New York’s numbers show only 50 districts with increases in opt-out rates.

And let’s face it — without New York City’s buy-in, where more than more than 40% of New York State students are educated, the opt-out movement is just a fad, no more relevant to today’s public education landscape than bell bottoms and mood rings.

Again from Chalkbeat:

New York City has traditionally had much lower opt-out rates than the rest of the state. While statewide 21 percent of families opted out last year, less than three percent did in the city. In part that’s because the movement hasn’t taken hold with as strongly with black and Hispanic families, who make up the majority of the city’s student body.

Why the difference in demographics? Because NYC parents of color urgently need school quality information in a city that’s ranked highly for school choice (Brookings just rated NYC third highest in the country) but also maintains many chronically-failing schools. If you live in Seaford (Nassau County) where 98% of the population is white and only 2% are below the poverty level, then it’s tempting to disregard statewide school quality. (Seaford’s opt-out rate this year is 69%.) If you live in New York City, where the majority of schoolchildren are Black, Latino, and poor, then you care about school quality a great deal.

A report last summer from Columbia University depicted the “the typical opt out activist ” as “a highly educated, white, married, politically liberal parent whose children attend public school and whose household median income is well above the national average.”

We can only hope that those typically white and wealthy “opt out activists” are beginning to see past the solipsism of the test refusal movement.

What do you think?

16 thoughts on “Get Over Yourselves and Opt In!

  1. There is no way these tests can accurately gage proficiency.

    I have heard parents tell their kids that since the tests don’t count towards their grades, it doesn’t matter how well they do. I’ve heard parents say, “If we don’t like the teacher, we’ll tell our kid to do poorly on the test.” Is a child hearing that going to show their true proficiency? How about the kids who are so exhausted by day three that they give up and stop writing, or write about how their eyes hurt from staring at text day after day? Don’t forget the kids who get stuck on a field test question embedded in their test; a question geared several grades over their own. They waste valuable energy and attention trying to work out a problem that was never meant for them. When day one of testing takes an hour, day two takes three hours, and day three takes 5 hours, there’s no way that student is putting their best work onto the page.

    When you factor in all the test results that fall into categories like these, the data being gleaned from them is so skewed it’s irrelevant.

    1. Thanks for writing! I agree that no test is perfect. But how can parents assess school quality, especially if they don’t have the financial flexibility to move to another district? This NYT article shows that parents who can move to better school districts. What about those who can’t? What do you suggest they do? Don’t they need data about student outcomes?

      1. The same way a teacher is qualified to assess their student’s strengths and weaknesses after working with them for a time, a principal can accurately assess the teachers working under them. It’s their job to do so.
        Bring in independent consultants, such as retired educators, to evaluate teachers at work and work with them to build on weak areas and exchange innovative ideas with other classrooms. Cross-connect great schools with struggling schools to share ideas and resources.

          1. With all due respect, a blog is hardly empirical evidence. There is a check and balance system already in place. Teachers evaluate and manage students, Principals evaluate and manage teachers, Boards of Ed evaluate and manage Principals, etc etc. I don’t see how report cards could be notoriously unreliable unless the format is flawed, which doesn’t make sense in this case as it’s basically a blank list of topics to be filled out by the teacher. Of course it’s subjective but the teacher is trained to be an expert in these topics, so it’s being subjectively evaluated by an expert. If there is an issue where teachers en masse are not being properly trained as experts, well then our focus should not be on elementary and secondary educational systems, we should be pouring money into supporting the Universities training our teachers.

  2. Those are great ideas, and some schools already implement them. How would you feel about great schools opening up enrollment to nearby struggling schools? Can we expand school choice that way in order to address the urgency of kids in failing schools right now?

    1. I don’t know. I suppose it would depend on in what ways they were failing and what it would cost to relocate the student. We’re lucky downstate that districts are close together geographically. I’d imagine it’d be harder upstate, parents may not want their kids travelling long distances to other schools. Like an educational foster system. Kids need stability. It might be a better use if the extra money and energy were just put into the failing school. Seems like moving kids might be a good idea in extreme emergency cases but would not be a long term fix.

      1. I understand what you’re saying, and you’re right that kids need stability — my own 4 sure do! But right now in NYC we’re investing tons of money in failing schools — have been for years — and it’s not helping. Money alone is necessary but not sufficient. And meanwhile that kid in, say, 7th grade only gets one year in 7th grade. He can’t wait.

        1. If the billions of dollars we spent creating Engage NY had been put into those failing schools, they might be much better by now. Is anyone asking the leaders of those failing schools what they would need to turn the schools around?

          1. Engage NY curriculum was rife with grammatical and typographical errors. I had to constantly interpret what the question MEANT vs what it SAID when my kindergartener was doing homework in 2008. My understanding is that NY paid billions to have it created, then it was rolled out too quickly with all the errors, then the errors were corrected and it was marketed to other states. NY received no profit from this sale and is no longer using it, although I think some individual districts still do.

            The study you gave the link to is 11 years old and compared the ACT scores as a control group to GPAs provided by the students, not the actual grades they were given. You can’t trust a study based on info that the students may or may not be remembering correctly.

            That said, I do see the point that it is difficult for a third party (colleges in this case) to determine the fit of an applicant based solely on HS grades. According to the study, this is why colleges use the ACT as a universal evaluator. Which seems a valid solution to the issue. Perhaps universities, if they’re not already, might even want to use alternate evaluations to test for specific strengths with regard to the area of study a student is applying for. For ex: A test focusing on critical thinking for someone looking to get into a law program.

            Still, I don’t see a problem about grading subjectively. Kids need to be evaluated subjectively because they are not universal learners, learning at the same rate due to the same methods in the same circumstances. You simply cannot treat, teach or evaluate all kids the same way. You said you have four kids, you know each of them will respond better/worse to a particular form of discipline on any particular day.

            If a parent or Principal thinks a grade was awarded erroneously, that parent or Principal will address the issue with the teacher. No one who does not know that child can determine the validity of that grade. Which is why standardized testing, while not completely invaluable, cannot be used as a MAJOR determining factor of the success of a student, or a teacher, or a school.

  3. I agree, Karen. Standardized assessments should not be used as a determining factor in evaluating teachers or students. But I believe that have an important place within the context of multiple measurements.

    1. I agree. I hold, however, that the current tests being used are flawed and the data collected is inaccurate at best. The money being wasted on these irrelevant tests should be put towards those failing schools. Which is one reason why we opt out. To bring attention to exactly that. NYC parents are made to feel they cannot opt out because they won’t be able to get their kids in to the school of their choice. So we typically white, wealthy, liberal suburban moms opt out on their behalf. Some of us do it for our own kids, most of us do it for all kids.

  4. Thank you for all your comments. I appreciate your thoughtfulness and passion. I’ll respond to these comments in a follow-up post this week.
    Laura Waters

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