NYC schools witness high opt-out of state tests amid rising anxiety


This year marks the first time that any parents at P.S. 171 have opted their children out of testing (not counting last year’s one-time opt-in policy).

Some other schools in the neighborhood are also seeing their first families opting out, according to parents and school leaders. The small, but growing numbers are notable since the opt-out movement has typically been more popular in white, affluent suburbs than in New York City. P.S. 171’s students are predominantly Black and Latino.

“Parents don’t know what it is to opt out, especially if they speak another language,” said Diaz, a parent leader on District 4’s Community Education Council who has been telling other Spanish-speaking parents about their rights to opt out and figuring out ways to communicate with families who speak various African languages.

The state typically doesn’t report opt-out numbers until the exam results are shared at the end of the summer, city officials said. But Diaz’s experience suggests concerns around student anxiety and academic challenges after prolonged learning disruptions may be spurring more families to say no to testing.

On top of the state tests, students have been taking other assessments throughout the year in English and math as part of the city’s academic recovery plan. The aim of the assessments, city officials said, was to understand where there might be learning gaps.

Federal officials declined to cancel last year’s state tests for similar reasons: They hoped to understand how students have fared academically during the pandemic.

National testing data shows dismal results, with progress stalled especially for younger students. Black, Latino, and low-income students were hardest hit. But experts have also questioned the value of the recent data from New York state exams, because last year’s unusually low participation rate makes it hard to draw comparisons.

New York City Schools Chancellor David Banks recently decried the amount of time schools spend on test prep for standardized exams, saying schools have become like “testing mills” at the expense of the arts and other courses that engage students, as well as social emotional learning.

The tests, however, are mandated by the federal government, and schools with low scores can find themselves on state lists of schools needing more oversight.

U.S. Rep. Jamaal Bowman, a former Bronx middle school principal who was a vocal supporter of opting out of the state tests, said he’s drafting legislation to remove the federal requirement that states administer standardized tests. He would rather let states choose alternatives such as testing just once in elementary, middle and high school. He also wants to delink the standardized tests from Title I funding.

“Why are we spending so much time on testing? It doesn’t get us to our goal of 100% literacy and ending the achievement gap,” Bowman said. “There are more complex challenges, like climate change, racial injustice, inequality. We need to prepare children for that world.”

Kemala Karmen, a parent activist with the grassroots group NYC Opt Out, lamented how much time children were spending taking tests this year, between the state tests and the English and math assessments the city requires schools to administer three times a year.

Karmen said many educators have told her they have not gotten the results of these assessments or have had little training to interpret them to change their practice. The state English and math test results are not released until after the school year is over.

“Even if you think learning loss is a real thing, how is taking time out for tests going to help?” Karmen said.

She also said that she’s heard more reports from families about schools pressuring their children to sit for the tests, erroneously saying they needed the results because of COVID-related learning loss.

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