A group of principals from prominent middle and high schools wrote a letter pledging they “will no longer be using test scores as part of our criteria for selecting students.” The City Council passed a nonbinding resolution opposing the use of certain “field tests” to try out sample exams on kids already inundated by test prep. This fall, Castle Bridge School in Washington Heights canceled new standardized multiple-choice tests when more than 80 percent of parents had pulled their children from testing. “My feeling about testing kids as young as 4 is it’s inhumane,” PTA co-chairwoman Dao Tran told a reporter. Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, has called New York City “the test-prep capital of the United States” and started a petition to ban the use of standardized tests for pre-K through the second grade.
The De Blasio era may seem promising to the resistance, but it’s unclear how much he can do in the short term. For the moment, he’s promised to scrap the A-through-F grading system for schools, putting less weight on test scores and more on “curriculum, quality neighborhood schools, arts, and physical education.” While he hasn’t said as much, he could also detach those tests from promotion, meaning no one would flunk a grade because of poor performance on the tests, but even that won’t mean the end of the tests themselves, or of the Common Core.
If anything, test pressure stands to increase this year before De Blasio has the chance to make his mark. A newly negotiated rule in the teachers’ contract in New York means that for the first time in the city’s history, all teacher evaluations are tied to students’ performance on these tests. Quite suddenly, teachers have been asked to instruct to a specific set of standards or watch their own ratings fall. “They’ve set up a situation where people are terrified to do anything but teach to the test,” says Jane Maisel, a City College instructor and former teacher in the city schools who is also a member of Change the Stakes. “And then they say that teachers shouldn’t just teach to the test!”
“They’ve provided it to us on the fly and said ‘Make it work,’ ” says Kate O’Hagan of P.S. 97. “I’m being handed a curriculum ten minutes before I teach it, and so I’m expected to adapt it. And then later on at my teacher training—and I’m glad I’m at least getting training—they tell me it’ll be better next year. But it’s just truly not ready. What do I say to my students who I have for the next ten months?”
Should the movement continue to grow, there are a number of tangible (and chaotic) repercussions that De Blasio would have to face. A growing opt-out movement could hurt teachers, if refusals to take the tests bring down the overall average of the scores being used in teacher evaluations. A critical mass of opt-outers could even arguably work toward disqualifying a school from receiving federal funding (the money from No Child Left Behind is contingent upon 95 percent of a school’s students taking the annual standardized tests). And while super-selective schools like Stuyvesant have their own entrance exams, there’s no guarantee that students won’t be penalized down the line, should they find themselves applying to a middle or high school that wants to see those scores.
“If a parent’s concern is that they don’t want their child’s education to swirl around a standardized-testing moment, we agree a hundred percent,” says Ken Wagner, the New York State deputy education commissioner who is supervising the rollout of the Common Core. “But we’d also caution parents that if they remove their child from the assessment program, there’s an impact. We really believe that these tests are not only important but irreplaceable. A parent who opts out of that is giving up the opportunity to get a critical piece of information.” Others, like Bloomberg, have argued that the sooner kids get used to taking the tests, the better prepared they’ll be for later challenges—like the SAT or ACT, which few choose not to take.
For the resistance, of course, all these arguments miss the mark. It’s not just about these tests; it’s about test culture’s dominance in the school system. “The majority of the people opting out—not everyone but the majority—are asserting their political will,” says Maisel. “We wanted to emphasize that the system is broken.”
Last summer, for the second year in a row, Oscar Mata was administered the BLM in June as part of his portfolio assessment. The school said he met the standard, but the superintendent disagreed. So he was not promoted in June. Andrea again decided to just let the process unfold, refusing to go along with anything that smacked of a test or evaluation. “We didn’t go to summer school when the summer-school-recommendation letter came in June. We didn’t retest in August, which is what most people do after going to summer school. And then the same portfolio was submitted in August.”
On August 26, Oscar was promoted. Andrea celebrated, then decided to part ways with the school. While he’ll finish out the fifth grade there, she’ll move Oscar’s little sister somewhere new—a school that she believes has built up a stronger resistance to test-prep culture.
The Nuñez family had gone directly to Polakow-Suransky of the DOE to override the principal’s decision to fail Pharez. Like the Matas, they waited all summer for word; Peter was ready to uproot the whole family and move to the Dominican Republic for a year if Pharez was held back, but they heard he would be promoted the same week as Oscar, with just days before the start of the school year. And like Oscar’s family, they decided to move Pharez and both his sisters to a new school. Of course, there’s no guarantee that he won’t run into the same pressure he encountered last year. “I’m going to be contacting the principal and seeing how they roll out test prep and looking at the environment,” Peter says. “I don’t think it’s going to be a symbolic act.”
He’s joined Change the Stakes, too. He thinks what happened last year to his son can’t be allowed to happen again. “They rushed into a lot of the things, and they weren’t well prepared. There was no system of support. And a lot of the kids failed.”