New York Opt-Out Rates Remain High, Tests Remain Massively Confusing


The New York State English Language Arts tests for third- through eighth-graders kicked off on Tuesday morning, and already reports are rolling in on how many parents opted their kids out… and how many students and teachers vomited at the sight of the shiny new exams that the state had promised would be less onerous this year. So far the answers are: “a whole heckuva lot” and “not all, but still plenty.”

Official opt-out numbers won’t be reported until August — the same time that test results themselves finally make it through the state’s bean-counting machinery — but that hasn’t stopped both reporters and parents from collecting their own data by calling schools in real time:

  • Newsday surveyed about 60 percent of Long Island schools Tuesday and came up with opt-out rates of 44.6 percent in Nassau County and 56.7 percent in Suffolk County — up from 33.9 percent and 49.6 percent, respectively, last year.
  • Former Long Island high school principal (and current Network for Public Education director) Carol Burris wrote in yesterday’s Washington Post that Allendale Elementary School in Orchard Park near Buffalo had 87 percent of students opt out (overall opt-out figures for all of Orchard Park in 2015 totaled 40 percent); Dolgeville retained its designation of “state opt-out capital” with 88.5 percent skipping the tests (90 percent last year); while Little Falls (18 percent) and Utica (25 percent) were reported down slightly from 2015.
  • In New York City, scattered unofficial reports collected mostly by opt-out proponents show strong opt-out figures from all corners of the five boroughs: Teachers College Community School in Harlem at 20 percent (up from 4 percent), Cornerstone Middle School in the Bronx at 25 percent (up from 2 percent), P.S.15 in Red Hook nearly at 40 percent (up from less than 7 percent), Muscota New School in Washington Heights at 24 percent (up from about 7 percent), P.S.321 in Park Slope at about 40 percent (up from 35 percent), and P.S.261 in Boerum Hill at 60 percent (down from 65 percent). At P.S.84 in Williamsburg — where the principal wigged out on a fifth-grader distributing opt-out information and made the student cry — opt-out rates are reported at around 12 percent, after virtually no students refused the tests last year.

Add it all up, and it seems likely that once again, somewhere around one-fifth of all New York State students will choose to hang out in the gym (or stare silently at their desks) this week instead of filling in bubbles. And New York City figures could easily top last year’s 1.4 percent, notwithstanding the city education department’s crackdown on principals and teachers who dare inform parents about the opt-out option.

City schools chancellor Carmen Fariña, meanwhile, has been walking an even finer unsteady line than usual on the tests. Last week, Fariña told parents at a Brooklyn meeting that kids with special needs or poor English-language skills shouldn’t take the tests; on Monday, she finessed that answer yet again, saying that her statement was “taken out of context” and instructing reporters that opting out is “something that parents should think very carefully about” because it’s “teaching kids that it’s not OK to do the whole work.” (The Daily News‘s version of Fariña’s quote was worded slightly differently; audio provided by the DOE confirms that these were the chancellor’s actual words.)

As for the tests themselves, while no talking-pineapple questions have emerged just yet — at least not in the tests’ first two days — teachers and parents have found plenty to complain about nonetheless. A call for comments on the NYC Public School Parents blog run by Class Size Matters organizer Leonie Haimson turned up one third-grade test question that so puzzled teachers that one called her main office to complain that it was unanswerable; several instances of reading passages that were far above the target reading levels for the grades they were testing; and at least one third-grader who immediately threw up at the sight of the tests and had to be sent home. There were also several reports that some students who did take the tests felt they weren’t as harrowing as they’d anticipated, though it wasn’t immediately clear whether this was a comment on the test questions or kids’ low expectations.

And then there was the “Important Notice,” sent out yesterday morning by the State Education Department to all ELA test proctors, explaining that the final question of today’s Book 2 had a small typo in its instructions:

In the directions on Page 1 of Book 2, students are instructed that they may “plan” their writing on the Planning Page. While there are blank pages at the back of the most [sic] Book 2s, these pages are not labeled Planning Page.

Please instruct all students that they may use the blank pages at the back of the test book to plan their response. Please also remind students that these pages will not count toward their final score and that their final answer must be written on the lined response space provided.

For the Book 2s for Grades 3 and 5, because there are no blank pages, proctors should give students scrap paper for their planning. These pages should be labeled with the students’ names and inserted in their test books.

Got all that? Now pick up your No. 2 pencils and begin.