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On state testing, NYC students being taught a bad lesson

Scores for Long Island students in grades three

Scores for Long Island students in grades three through eight who took the Common Core state exams in the spring of 2015 rose modestly this year compared to last, according to the New York State Education Department. Look up scores by district here. But that only tells part of the story. Long Island also had more than 46 percent of eligible students refuse to take state tests -- far higher than the state average -- according to Newsday's reporting. Look up opt-out rates for local districts here Photo Credit: NEWSDAY / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Education should prepare us for civic engagement, or learning how to speak to fellow citizens persuasively on the issues we care about.

Sadly, when it comes to education policy, NYC public school children are learning just the opposite lesson: Shut up and listen to the authorities.

A Williamsburg elementary school principal, parents recently told, chastised a fifth-grader for handing out fliers advocating that her fellow students opt out of state tests. The principal then convened an assembly in which she told students, “You’ve got to get this opt-out stuff out of your head.”

Students in New York State have faced such intimidation in past years, too. Last spring, a Brooklyn principal told middle school students they couldn’t walk at graduation or attend the prom if they refused the tests, parents said. In 2014, a girl in upstate Sparrowbush was suspended for two days for insubordination after telling fellow students they could opt out.

Last month, I wrote about the pressure teachers face from the Department of Education not to discuss test refusal with parents. The parents face coercion, too. Principals have told parents that schools would lose funding if children opted out, and that schools would face state takeover. One District 15 elementary school principal suggested, in a fanciful moment, that children refusing tests would eventually “bomb the SAT and not get into college.”

The episodes have a political context: The opt-out movement is winning victories. Tying teacher evaluations to student test scores is being increasingly questioned by policymakers. In December, New York State’s Board of Regents voted for a four-year moratorium on the link between test scores and evaluations.

Such victories are likely to continue, given that Betty Rosa, a progressive educator from the Bronx, was elected recently as chancellor of the Board of Regents. Rosa said that if she had children in test-taking grades, she would opt them out of state tests.

Perhaps Rosa will have a word with NYC Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña and put a stop to the bullying test refusers. Let’s hope so.

School should be a place for argument and inquiry, not strong-arming.

Liza Featherstone lives and writes in Clinton Hill.


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