Accountability · achievement gap · admissions · remote learning

Should You Opt Your Child Into NYC State Tests? The Pros and Cons!

In a change from previous years, in 2021, New York City parents need to decide whether to opt their children in –rather than out — of the annual state tests.

The deadline to sign up for 3rd through 8th grade English Language Arts (ELA) exams was April 15, and the deadline to sign up for 3rd through 8th grade Math exams is April 29. 

On April 13, The NY Daily News quoted me:

Parents must decide soon whether they want their kids to take state assessment tests this spring — but it’s unclear whether the tests will count toward admission to the city’s selective middle and high schools next year….

“People have to commit” to either taking or not taking the state exams “before people know what the consequences of their actions might be,” said Alina Adams, a public school parent who advises families on admissions.

This concern primarily applies to parents of current 4th and 7th graders as, traditionally, those have been the years looked at for placement into screened 6th and 9th grades. (Hunter College High School, which admits for 7th grade, looks at 5th grade state test scores to determine who they invite to sit for their own exam.)

As there were no state tests in 2020, for 2021, all NYC middle schools were unscreened. Instead of looking at grades, test scores, and other factors like interviews and auditions, the process will be a straightforward lottery.

High schools were allowed to keep screens in place. While a few continued to take test scores into consideration, most focused on grades, personal statements, portfolios of past work, and video auditions, followed by a lottery of the top candidates, with some set asides for students qualifying for Free or Reduced Price Lunch.

As of press time, the Department of Education (DOE) would not commit to saying whether 2021 state test scores would be a factor in 2022 middle and high school admissions.

My gut feeling is they won’t be. While we don’t yet have numbers for how many families have opted into the state tests, with 60% of students currently choosing to keep learning from home, it’s unlikely to reach even 50% of the entire student body. With the majority of kids not having such scores, I don’t see the DOE including them in 2022 admissions. 

Nonetheless, when parents emailed to ask my advice as to whether or not they should opt their children in, regardless of grade level, I told them: Yes.

Here’s why:

First and foremost, as anyone who has spoken to me in person knows, I always advise to leave as many doors open as possible. Opting your child into the tests means you can still change your mind the morning of the exam and keep them home, with no penalty. It doesn’t work the other way around.

Second, it’s nice to know where your child stands compared to where they should be at each grade level. 

Sure, teachers insist they have a much better view of what your child is capable of on a daily basis by observing them in the classroom then some standardized test. Grades are a stronger indicator of progress. They’ll let you know if there are any problems.

Except that grades are, unquestionably, subjective. A 2021 study reports

Teachers gave the white student better marks across the board — with one exception. When teachers used a grading rubric with specific criteria, racial bias all but disappeared. When teachers evaluated student writing using a general grade-level scale, they were 4.7 percentage points more likely to consider the white child’s writing at or above grade level compared to the identical writing from a Black child. However, when teachers used a grading rubric with specific criteria, the grades were essentially the same.

In addition, as Arne Duncan, President Barack Obama’s Secretary of Education, wrote in his book:

Calvin Williams, a rising high-school senior on the B honor roll, could read and write at a second- or third-grade level… The most insidious part of the whole thing was that he didn’t know what he didn’t know… Perhaps worse still, the school and his teachers also didn’t know that Calvin was so far behind. As far as they were concerned, Calvin was an actual B student. The big lies are the ones that the system tells to parents about how their kids are learning. 68 percent of community college students and 40 percent of public four-year college students take at least one high school-level class because they’re not ready for college coursework. Simple stuff like basic algebra or subject-verb agreement, need to be “remediated” for these students because they’re unprepared. Even some kids who graduate with honors or with GPAs above 4.0 aren’t ready – because the system lied to them… Kids who think they’re doing very well at the end of middle school are wrong. They’re not ready for high school – not even close. The standards are way, way too low.

Which brings me to the third and most important reason why I am urging parents to opt their child into state tests this year: Accountability.

We need objective data about what happened in the classroom this year more than any other.

On the one hand, we have those who are telling us that absolutely no learning loss took place. Every single child is on track, and anyone who says otherwise is just teacher-bashing. (This ignores the reality that, even before the pandemic, half of NYC kids were already not performing at grade level.)

On the other, we have parents pretty sure that watching a couple of videos and filling out a worksheet doesn’t constitute a rigorous curriculum and that their children have lost substantial ground.

One way to determine which take is accurate is to opt as many students as possible into the state tests.

There is very little risk for the individual student. We’ve been told the tests will not be used for grades, promotion, or tracking. 

One parent asked me, “But what if only families who expect their kids to do well opt-in, and the results are artificially high? Won’t that give a false picture of what’s going on?”

It will. But just for this year. If, the following year, when all students are tested again, the scores plunge, that will be useful data.

And if this year scores are lower than usual, we’ll be able to see, school by school, district by distinct, where (fine, if) learning loss happened. Which should be helpful when it comes to where the $900 million dollars in federal stimulus money dedicated to be spent on “evidence-based” practices to combat “learning loss” should go. 

At the start of the Covid crises, when wartime metaphors were flying hot and heavy, I wrote about how wartime requires heroism. It requires making personal sacrifices for the greater good.

Opting into a state test is a pretty small sacrifice to make, especially when the risk is so minimal. But it could have a big heroic impact for others.

What do you think?

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