New York parents opt out of high stakes tests

Protestors in New York object to Common Core tests. They object to the high stakes attached to a student's performance, as well as the secrecy surrounding the questions.

Last year, Amelia Costigan watched as her twin sons and their fourth-grade classmates prepared for the new state tests. It was the first year New York’s assessments were based on the Common Core, the nationally standardized curricula that many states have adopted in recent years. And, a lot was at stake in New York. The kids literally worried themselves sick. 

“My kids had trouble sleeping,” Costigan says. “Other kids had stomach aches. Kids were going to the doctors, and the doctors were saying it looked like it was stress from the test.”

The tests determined whether her sons advanced to the next grade, or got into a top middle school. Scores also played into teacher evaluations and school rankings. This year, Costigan and the parents of eight other kids at her school decided they didn’t want their kids to participate. 

“It was a hard decision that some of them had. They cried. They worried they weren’t going to go to graduation, but in the end, all 10 kids opted out,” she says. 

Parents’ groups estimate about 1,000 kids in New York City won’t be taking the Common Core assessments this year. Statewide, it’s about 35,000. Those numbers are hard to verify and they represent just  a tiny fraction of the total number of kids sitting down for the math tests this week.  

But opting out is the most drastic—and visible—part of a growing protest movement in New York and nationwide. Parents, teachers, and other critics have been holding rallies, trying to put an end to the standardized tests. 

At a rally in Lower Manhattan last week, Liz Rosenberg says her fourth grade daughter wasn’t scared of the tests at first.  

“She was super psyched to take it,” she says.

But Rosenberg was anything but psyched. Part of her objection is that questions and answers are not released after the test, so it’s hard for kids to know what they don’t know. She convinced her daughter that the tests are a bad idea. This year, she’s opting out. 

“It’s important to stand up. It’s important to talk back,” Rosenberg says.

Many teachers and critics believe the math is confusing and the English questions are too hard. Fourth graders are being asked to assess middle school level reading, some say.  

“We felt the questions did not actually assess whether children were reading with understanding, which we thought was really important to assess,” says Elizabeth Phillips, principal of PS 321 in Brooklyn.  

She’s not anti-testing or against the Common Core, but she say seeing the English exams turned her off. 

Phillips was also concerned that so much was riding on these tests. Like other critics, she held protests. And, to some degree they worked.  

“Up until a few weeks ago, there really was a lot at stake,” she says. 

Recently, New York officials scrambled to lower the stakes. No longer will test scores go on students’ permanent records. And, they won’t be used as the major determinant of whether kids go onto the next grade. 

Officials think that change will go a long way to placate many nervous parents.

“Knowing that the state test will only be used as one of multiple factors has eased some of those concerns,” says Emily Weiss, senior executive director of performance at New York City Department of Education

At some point, if too few students take the tests, some schools could lose funds.

That’s still far off, but with opposition to the tests mounting, New York’s fight could be coming to a state near you. 

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