Opting Out of High-Stakes Testing Has Backfired in New York City

No matter how smart they are, the majority of kids who did not take standardized tests will be forced to attend summer school.

New York State Tests, Standardized Testing Cons
Many students who did not take the New York state tests will have a much shorter summer break. (Photo: Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images)
Suzi Parker is a journalist whose work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

This spring, public-school students in New York City chose a dicey way to protest standardized tests: refusing to participate.

But now some students are paying the price for opting out by having to attend summer school even though their teachers have said they should be promoted to the next grade. Naturally, parents are not happy, and some recently held a press conference at the city’s Department of Education headquarters to protest the promotion procedures.

“Children [who opt out of testing] are perceived the same as children who received a low score, even if they are high-performing students,” Andrea Nata, a public school parent, said at the press conference. “This is the second year in a row my child has not been promoted in June.”

The drama started earlier this year when the state mandated more difficult standardized tests that aligned with the Common Core Learning Standards. Children who scored in the bottom 10 percent on the tests are required to attend summer school. Students who opted out were considered in the same category, and the only way they could avoid summer school was if their teachers created a portfolio proving they understood the material.

“Denying promotion on the basis of parental decision to opt out is a clear retaliation method and scare tactic for future parents to make this an option,” Diana Zavala, the parent of a fourth grader in New York City and a member of Change the Stakes, told TakePart.

Zavala’s son opted out of the tests for a second year in a row. He does not have to attend summer school because his portfolio was assessed and he passed.

Some parents say that teachers don’t even know how to create portfolios, and as a result, their children are attending summer school. Others claim that teachers told them their children failed the portfolio. But when they went to the school superintendent, they were told the teacher never turned in the portfolios.

The Department of Education disagrees with the parents.

“We have said all along that no individual student would be disadvantaged because the state made the tests harder,” said DOE spokeswoman Erin Hughes. “Summer school is important for students who are falling behind and need additional instructional time. This year, the Department has recommended that the students with the bottom 10 percent of scores go to summer school. These students likely scored at a level one on the state’s proficiency scale and will benefit from the extra summer learning.”

In turn, Zavala disagrees with the DOE statement and says myriad problems contributed to students having difficulty with this year’s tests.

She said while the Common Core Standards were released and the tests were created months ago, the curriculum wasn’t implemented until the spring.

“Teachers did not know the tests and therefore couldn't prepare students to take them,” she told TakePart.

Additionally, the test’s creator, Pearson, included English Language Arts questions from a textbook used in an upstate New York school district, Zavala said. But that book was not used in New York City, so students did not learn the right material for the tests.

Many parents, including Zavala, say that at the heart of the controversy is transparency. Parents are routinely denied access to evaluate the tests or see the questions their children got correct or missed. They argue that in many instances a teacher’s recommendation is absent from any decision to promote a student.

Summer school, Zavala said, is not the answer for students who opted out or who are in the lower 10 percent. Change the Stakes wants students to have support when they need help during the school year instead of penalizing them with summer school.

“For the students who fail the tests to begin with, those students, if really deemed to be behind academically, the answer isn't summer school (for five weeks), but actual support to get the student to grade level,” Zavala said. “And this certainly shouldn't come to a head at the end of the year, but should be something that was ongoing and addressed throughout the school year.”

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