These New York Schools Aren’t Just Letting Kids Opt Out of Testing—They’re Giving Them an Alternative

Students in the New York Performance Standards Consortium are learning to be critical thinkers, deeply engaged in their education.

By Howard Martin Katzoff

Originally published in The Nation – September 11, 2015


This week, children across New York State will exchange the freedom of summer for work sheets, rubrics, and minute-to-minute daily schedules posted on the board. For a few days, their lives will be upended by novelty—they will go into new classrooms, be greeted by new teachers, make new friends, and get new books (if they’re lucky)—but by the end of the month, it will have all the feel of old routine.

Yet before School Year 2015–16 ramps up to accelerated rhythms, we would do well to reflect back on the last school year, which ended with a burst of controversy over the issue of high-stakes testing. In New York State, 1.1 million children in grades three through eight were supposed to be assessed last spring in math and English Language Arts. Instead, some 200,000 students, or nearly 20 percent, never took the exams because their parents refused to submit them to the standardized-testing machine. It was a record-setting revolt, with The New York Times estimating that as many as four times as many students opted out of the annual testing ritual in 2015 as did in 2014.

New York State parents were hardly the only school-zone rebels. Parents throughout the country have gone on record against an instructional culture that has turned test preparation into the de facto school curriculum. But what seems to have tipped the scales in New York was Governor Andrew Cuomo’s announcement last January that standardized tests would be used to a greater and greater extent for evaluating teacher performance. “Ramping up standardized testing…has turned parents into rebels, solid citizens into outliers, the law abiding into the rule-defying,” Donn Esmonde, a columnist for the Buffalo Newsobserved in an April column.

As a new school year begins, top administrators are no doubt dreaming that the ill-advised adults who have been stirring up trouble will finally fall in line. Perhaps to raise the high stakes even higher, New York State Commissioner of Education MaryEllen Elia warnedover the summer that districts whose students boycott the test in particularly high numbers this coming spring could be sanctioned or even lose their Title I funds. (The chancellor of the State Board of Regents has since said that money will not be withheld.)

Now, as the opt-out opposition plans its next steps, what will parents do? Will the movement continue to snowball, or will it melt in the months ahead? And, more crucially, will this grassroots insurrection turn out to be just a massive pushback against standardized testing, with the goal of making kids take fewer tests—or are we about to revive American public education from the intellectual asphyxiation caused by years of corporate education reform?

Long time educational innovator Deborah Meier has been asserting for years that “America needs a different discussion about what the point of education is.” With so much discontent building up within the system—and with the so-called education-reform movement going up in flames in places like Newark (see Dale Russakoff’s newly published book, The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools)—the time is ripe to reexamine the goals and values of our kids’ school experience: to begin talking about the kind of system parents should opt into, not just the kind they should opt out of.

Remarkably, examples of “opt-in” models already exist at the high school level, with many of them thriving within the New York City public school system. Thirty-eight schools in the statewide New York Performance Standards Consortium have waivers exempting their students from having to take most Regents exams, the statewide standardized tests required of all high-school students, as well as other uniform measures of achievement. In their place, they have what Ann Cook, executive director of the Consortium, calls “a different vehicle for accountability”: rigorous “performance-based” assessments that are individualized, student focused, research oriented and often interactive.

The Consortium schools have their origin in the small-schools movement, which took root in New York in the 1970s and afterIn those earlier days, the New York City Board of Education had a division to promote alternative schools and a “superintendent of alternative schools and programs” who supported experimentation. With his help, educators like Meier and Cook appealed to the state commissioner of education, Thomas Sobol, arguing that they had designed ways to assess students outside the Regents framework and that, in fact, having to teach kids for the Regents exams undermined their instructional pedagogy. In an act of leadership that could scarcely be imagined today, Sobol agreed, granting a small corps of schools official waivers from most Regents exams.

Today, students who attend Consortium schools are evaluated through their work in portfolios, hands-on projects, personal research and oral presentations. The results have been promising. A report based on data collected in 2008–09 from the New York City Department of Educationdocumented higher graduation rates and lower dropout rates in Consortium schools compared with demographically comparable high-stakes testing schools. And college acceptance and attendance rates are similarly robust, with Consortium students logging a college acceptance rate of 91 percentcompared to 62.6 percent at traditional schools.

Education experts have been impressed. “The New York Performance Standards Consortium has as a well-documented record of success with the same students as those in regular public schools,” Diane Ravitch, the crusading education historian and public schools advocate, told The Nation. “They don’t skim the top students, as so many high-scoring charters do. This would be an excellent model to replace the current regime of standardized testing, which repels many parents and teachers.”

The Consortium model was in full swing last June when, instead of sitting for the Biology Regents, 16-year-old Indhira Martinez was standing in front of a panel of teachers, experts and visitors at her Bronx high school. She offered a research paper, supported by her own field study. “In this project, I tested three different scents with four older people and four younger people.” Her research question was, “Is smell affected by a person’s age?” Her scientific conclusion: It is.

Before delivering their mini-lectures, Martinez and her colleagues made a point of coming over to each person in the room, making eye contact, shaking hands and introducing themselves. These interpersonal skills accompany the academics within the school’s instructional culture.

Martinez’s presentation was part of an end-of-the-year assessment ritual at Bronx Lab School, housed at the formerly mega-sized Evander Childs High School. Bronx Lab is a Consortium school, and, like many New York City schools, Bronx Lab has a significant population of newly arrived immigrant students. Students must learn English along with the required academics. Martinez was sharing an original research paper, in English, as were two other young scientists. In rooms throughout the school, 40 other presentations were likewise taking place in lieu of Regents’ exams, the school’s principal, Sarah Marcy, said.

For educators like Meier, whose work earned her a MacArthur Award in 1987, such an integrated, student-centered approach to assessment slices to the heart of a meaningful education. Education, she wrote in an e-mail, “has always been a shared responsibility of the family and its particular community based on agreed-upon life purposes…be [they] in a specific useful craft or in citizenship, defined as responsibility to the certifying community.” In far too many of our schools, however, education’s democratic, communal impulse has been drained from the classroom.

Consider how we teach and learn in the United States through the eyes of 15-year-olds new to our classrooms, foreign to our culture, unaware of our values. Although we tend to glorify creativity and freedom, an average high-school student from any country in the world attending almost any of our schools would soon get the message, as native-born students long have, that success in the American educational system is achieved by sitting still for instruction, and answering questions exactly how you were taught to. How will the high-stakes-testing performers think when none of the multiple-choice solutions framing their thinking will apply to their pressing problems?

As parents gather together once more, attending school functions, picking up their kids, discussing the benefits and risks of opting out again, they might well consider what Meier and her allies have been advocating since the 1970s. Turn the discussion about education around. Change the agenda from the latest state requirements to the requirements of growing children. Put aside talk about how the numbers improved, or didn’t, or how many teachers got this result and how many got that, and what the data say. And ask questions about how the school’s instructional program teaches and assesses the “whole child”: During the school day, for how long do children have to sit still? To what extent do children in all grades act, sing, play instruments, dance, and draw what they are learning? What hands-on projects and presentations do students make from topics that interest them?

Currently, the options for this kind of education are limited in the lower grades. The Consortium’s Ann Cook cited initiatives at a handful of elementary schools in New York City, but even their efforts often run into roadblocks. After second grade, the demands of the standardized testing regime make innovation enormously challenging.

Yet there is one option for parents yearning for an “opt-in” education for their kids. They can do what Cook and her colleagues did more than two decades ago in a more innovation-friendly educational environment: They can put pressure on Mayor Bill de Blasio and state officials to create a path for elementary and middle-school principals to apply for waivers from state exams in order to implement and assess learning better tailored to the unique needs of their students.

“External assessments must be part of the teaching-learning loop. You need those,” Cook advised. “But the evaluation mechanism should not determine your instructional model, especially when the model consists of standardized exams evaluating only a narrow range of learning outcomes.”

If school stakeholders study the intention and purpose of the New York Performance Standards Consortium, and create a demand for this model across all the grades, then this year’s opting-out parents will get a big chance to force the national media into a wholly different kind of conversation about going to school in America.

With thanks for support and encouragement from The Myrin Institute and Orion magazine.