'Big For Us'

Amid a statewide surge, city’s opt-out movement is small but growing

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
A protest in 2014 at P.S. 321 in Park Slope against the state English exams.

As students wrapped up this week’s state English exams, advocates said more city parents than ever refused to let their children take the tests at schools with active “opt-out” movements, while other parents brought the boycott to schools that are new to the cause.

In District 15, Brooklyn’s opt-out hotspot, P.S. 321 saw its refusal rate rocket from about 4 percent last year to 36 percent this year, and P.S. 58 went from one boycotter to 50, parents and teachers said. Meanwhile, in southeast Brooklyn, an area not usually associated with anti-testing fervor, 10 students for the first time handed in opt-out letters at P.S. 203.

“It’s small,” said parent Charmaine Dixon, “but it’s big for us, because it’s never happened before.”

Advocates were still gathering city opt-out numbers Thursday, and while some predicted an increase from last year’s total of about 1,900 families that formally refused the exams, they will still represent a tiny fraction of the roughly 420,000 city test-takers. A spokeswoman said the education department would not have a final opt-out count until the tests, which are given in grades three through eight, are “fully processed.” (Students take the math tests next week.)

The city’s refusal rate will also be dwarfed by the percentages in several suburban and upstate districts, where some reports said the majority of students sat out the tests. Across the state, more than 155,000 students out of about 1.1 million eligible test-takers may have refused this week’s exams, according to an unofficial tally Thursday morning by the group United to Counter the Core, which opposes the Common Core standards and their assessments. Last year, 49,000 students did not take the English tests, according to state officials.

While noting the city’s comparatively small numbers, advocates stressed that the refusal movement has spread outside Brooklyn and Manhattan’s liberal bastions to a smattering of schools in other parts of the city, sometimes despite resistance from principals and teachers. Advocates, parents, and teachers said the growth reflects some parent’s long-standing wariness about the value and validity of standardized tests, which hardened this year after Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed tying teachers’ ratings even more closely to students’ scores.

They added that some parents decided it was safer to boycott the tests this year following city policy changes that shrank the role of test scores in decisions to promote students to the next grade or admit them to certain middle schools. Still, the advocates acknowledged that the eye-popping opt-out figures from other parts of the state made them reluctant to release their latest citywide counts.

“Part of the apprehension,” said parent and opt-out organizer Janine Sopp, “is that our numbers are not going to be Long Island numbers.”

As some city schools dived even deeper into the refusal waters this year — for example, the Earth School in the East Village went from 52 to 72 percent of students sitting out the exams, a teacher said — others tried dipping in their toes. Nine schools out of 100 that were contacted in the Bronx and Staten Island reported having parents opt out for the first time this year, according to Jody Alperin, a parent member of the group NYC Opt Out. (Not all the schools responded.)

Still, the vast majority of students took the tests. In some cases, parents worried that skipping the exams could keep their children from getting into selective schools. Despite the policy change, middle schools with admission policies can still base up to 49 percent of student rankings on their scores — and some parents fear that scores weigh even more heavily in practice.

Takiema Smith, a parent at the Brooklyn New School,  in a photo from 2014. Smith opted her child out of the exams that year.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Takiema Smith, a parent at the Brooklyn New School, in a photo from 2014. Smith opted her child out of the exams that year.

Meanwhile, some administrators have warned parents who inquired about opting out that students may have to attend summer school or take different tests, and that schools could lose money, advocates said. And some teachers warned that their ratings could suffer, the advocates added. (Chancellor Carmen Fariña has told principals to explain the value of the state tests to parents, but respect their choice if they decide to opt out.)

At some schools, educators participated in panel discussions or sent letters home in which they openly shared with parents their concern that the state tests do a poor job measuring student growth and teacher effectiveness. But in other schools, educators said they were ordered not to share such views.

After several students in one Bronx classroom opted out for the first time this year, the principal told the teacher she would face disciplinary charges if he found that she had encouraged them to do so, according to the teacher who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid retaliation. (She denied urging students to boycott.) Theresa Cardazone, a sixth-grade social studies teacher at I.S. 281 in Brooklyn, said such threats stop some teachers from giving parents even basic information about opting out.

“The parents are not informed,” she said, “and we’re not allowed to give information.”

Teachers who back the opt-out movement have criticized their union leaders for declining to endorse the boycotts, as the state teachers union recently did. While the head of New York State United Teachers recently recorded a robocall telling members that parents have a right to opt out, United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew warned members at a meeting this week that test refusal could jeopardize the city’s federal funding, according to attendees who said he also affirmed parents’ right to make that decision. (In a statement, Mulgrew said the union shares parents’ concerns about high-stakes testing, and blamed Cuomo’s education policies for the rise in boycotts.)

The city gets about $900 million in federal education funds, and one condition is that at least 95 percent of students in tested grades take the annual exams. If a school or district dips below that threshold, then the state education department must “consider” possible sanctions, one of which is withholding federal funds, officials said. (Advocates said sanctions can only kick in after three years, but a state education department spokesman did not confirm that when asked.)

Spokesman Jonathan Burman said the agency would consider withholding money “in the most egregious cases,” but that any sanctions would be determined on a “case by case basis, taking into account the degree and length of time the district has failed to meet participation rate.” A federal spokeswoman said that agency has never had to withhold money due to the 95-percent rule “yet.”

Jody Alperin, the NYC Opt Out member whose children attend P.S. 10 in South Park Slope, where advocates believe the number of boycotters shot up to 60 this year from one last year, called the talk of sanctions “scare tactics.”

“They’re using semantics,” she said, “to be as scary as they can.”

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede