State testing refusals vary wildly across Brooklyn

A Brooklyn school district saw more students opt out of state exams for the 2017-18 school year than any other district in the city, Department of Education data shows.

New York State is required by federal law to administer math and English Language Arts tests to every third- to eighth-grade public school student.

Parents, however, have the right of refusal on the student’s behalf, allowing them to opt out of the tests.

The numbers, obtained by Chalkbeat and shared with this newspaper, illustrate profoundly different attitudes toward the tests from district to district — and even school to school.

School District 15, which runs from Carroll Gardens to Sunset Park, and includes Park Slope, Windsor Terrace and sections of Boerum Hill and Fort Greene, had the highest opt-out rate in the entire city last year, and more than double the opt-out rate of any other school in the borough.

The district saw 14.3 percent of students opt out for the statewide ELA exam and 14 percent for the statewide math exam.

Brooklyn’s District 23 came in second boroughwide, with an average of 6.3 percent of students opting out of the ELA exam and an average of 6.4 percent opting out of math. District 23 encompasses Brownsville, Ocean Hill and portions of East New York.

Altogether, the parents of Brooklyn students opt their children out of the exams at a higher rate than the citywide average, though Manhattan has the highest opt-out rate of all the boroughs.

Brooklyn-wide, 4.6 percent opt out of the statewide English exams, and 4.9 percent opt out of math.

It doesn’t appear geography plays a role in testing patterns.

District 15’s neighboring district, District 20, comprised of Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Borough Park and a small pocket of Sunset Park, had the lowest average rate of student opt-outs in the borough. Just 1.6 percent of District 20 students opted out of the English exam, while 1.7 percent chose not to take the math exam.

In fact, the school with the highest opt-out rate in the city, District 15’s Brooklyn New School, is less than half a mile away from the school with the lowest opt-out rate, Red Hook Neighborhood School.

It appears parents’ decision to opt out can be informed by the individual school’s culture.

Brooklyn New School was founded by parents and teachers in 1987 as a progressive alternative to traditional education. They are forgoing the exams at exceptionally high levels, according to the stats. A whopping 96.4 percent of its students chose not to take either of the exams.

District 15’s Red Hook Neighborhood School had not a single opt-out for either exam.

Officials for both schools did not respond to requests for comment, but one active parent said that District 20’s low opt-out rates are driven by an emphasis on testing by district leadership.

“Teachers are telling students that if they don’t pass these exams, they have no future,” Paullette Ha-Healy, Parent Teacher Association president of P.S. 264, told this paper. “The narrative that’s been coming out of District 20 is that we’re all about state testing. That’s not a reflection of our district as a whole, but that’s what’s getting the attention.”

That narrative might be overblown — but isn’t entirely without merit, according to one Brooklyn high school teacher who says such testing helps guide the admissions process.

“If an institution received two applications, one with no test score and another with a test score of 85-plus, chances are they’re going to accept the latter student,” said the English teacher, who wished to remain anonymous.

But, “There’s a flip side,” she said, pointing to students’ anxiety over test-taking, which could negatively impact their scores.

According to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America, one in eight children suffers from an anxiety disorder.

Ha-Healy’s child attends one of just three schools in District 20 with a higher than 5 percent opt-out rate, and said the tests have a definite effect on her daughter’s mental health.

“I am very confident that I made the right decision when it comes to opting my daughter out of state testing,” she told this paper. Ha-Healy said her daughter, now in the fourth grade, was exhibiting “major behavioral problems” she’s since attributed to the high-stakes testing. “I opted her out of all testing and all test prep, and her behavior pretty much changed overnight.”

Another District 20 parent, Tamara Stern, finds testing provides important insights into the education of her three children.

“[Children are] going to be tested regardless, in one way or another, from elementary school to middle school to high school to college,” she said. “[State exams] are a way for us to see what kids are learning and where they’re at comparatively. It’s also a way for them to get the hang of it.”

Her three children are all different types of test-takers, Stern said. “It’s good for me to see what each one of them needs to focus on.”

Stern opted one of her children out of exams because she didn’t believe the teacher was adequately preparing her for success.  She said she appreciates that parents have the choice.

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