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The Opt-Outers

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Pharez Nunez, 9, doing his homework.  

In the spring of 2012, 113 students in New York City, including Oscar, opted out of one or both of the state tests. What most parents didn’t know is that the DOE did have a process in place for kids who failed the tests—and this same process became the recourse for kids who refused to take the test. Any child who scored a one on the state ELA or math test (as well as all opt-outers) could submit to an alternative evaluation system called a “portfolio assessment,” which includes the score of another test called a “Blackline master,” or BLM, that takes a little less time than the state tests (the portfolio may also include examples of the student’s classwork, though that’s not required). The overall portfolio is reviewed by the teacher and the principal, then by the super­intendent, who determines whether the student moves to the next grade. It wasn’t a perfect solution—students were opting out of a test by taking a different one—but it at least meant the students could avoid the big standardized tests and the parents, as a group, could lodge a protest they hoped would register down the line.

The principal at Oscar’s school, Evelyn Linares, as Mata recalls, had never heard of a student opting out. “She said, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ ” (The DOE would not make Linares available to comment for this story.) Other principals did their best to dissuade parents from opting out and went out of their way not to help those who did. Last year, Peter Nuñez—father to Pharez, an 8-year-old third-grader at P.S. 173, populated largely by children learning English as a second language—says his son’s school made the appeals process as difficult for him as possible.

Pharez had been earning threes, making him an average student. Then, as April approached, he started crying each morning, sometimes for twenty minutes or more. He wouldn’t say why. Nuñez has taught in the city schools for more than fifteen years. When he visited P.S. 173, he learned that it had surrendered its schedule solely to test prep; teachers spent the entire day teaching almost nothing but material related to the ELA and math exams.

By then, Pharez was having trouble sleeping. He lost his appetite. “He was complaining about pains in his back and his head. If it was happening to a college student, I might accept this. But for a child, it was not acceptable, not at all. And so I opted him out.”

Nuñez wrote a letter and had it notarized and brought it to the principal, Dawn Boursiquot (who also did not comment). That’s when the administration reacted, he says. Nuñez got phone calls at home from the principal’s secretary, the PTA president, and the assistant principal, all asking him why Pharez opted out and trying to persuade him to change his mind. “After a few calls, I said, ‘You know, I think you ought to respect our decision.’ ”

From April through June, Nuñez says he asked repeatedly to help the school prepare a portfolio for Pharez, only to be ignored. In June, three days before school ended, he was called in for a meeting with Boursiquot. “We got there, and she told us they [gave Pharez the BLM] that same day during the school day,” Nuñez says. “And she informed us that he had failed.”

In his last face-to-face meeting with Boursiquot, Nuñez recalls, the principal told him in front of everyone in the office, “You know what? You decided this for your son.”

The Common Core standards that triggered last spring’s change in the state tests are the Obama administration’s way of sealing in the quality-control demands of No Child Left Behind, which rewarded high test scores without ever really saying what should be on those tests. One of the Common Core’s chief authors, David Coleman (now president of the College Board), is an educational consultant who worked out a set of standards based on an elegant, seemingly unimpeachable methodology: to reverse-engineer the test results of high-performing college students by raising primary-school standards to be more in line with what prepares them for college-level work. For example, the Common Core’s elementary-school math standards focus tightly on the building blocks of algebra—addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and fractions. Traditional curricula are more varied and, in Coleman’s view, “a mile wide and an inch deep,” clogged with superfluous drills about patterns and combinations. “Imagine you have an assessment system where you can pass a fourth- or fifth-grade math test without knowing fractions ’cause you’re covering so many topics?” Coleman said at a Harvard conference last spring. “If you pass that test, are you on your way to success?”


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