by Tracy Tullis

The annual state tests for elementary and middle school students have been a volatile subject among parents and teachers for at least a decade. Some parents have joined the “opt-out” movement while others insist that a standard assessment can help close the achievement gap for low-income and minority students.

Recent format and policy changes have eliminated some of the most contentious aspects of the tests for many teachers, parents, and education advocates. In late 2015, the New York Board of Education announced that students’ scores would no longer be considered in teacher tenure or firing decisions (at least until the 2019-2020 school year, while the Board reconsiders its evaluation procedures).

Students’ scores are no longer a factor in grade promotion; the tests are also now untimed—which some feel might make the April exams a slightly less daunting experience for the city’s 3rd through 8th graders. Many teachers and parents are troubled, though, by the New York State regulation that prohibits educators from viewing the content of the tests they administer. And while some argue that the tests can help teachers identify which students are struggling, others point out that the results arrive too late in the year to be of much use.

Critics also argue that the tests themselves are poorly designed, or that teachers too often feel pressured to spend valuable classroom time prepping students with unimaginative lessons geared to test strategies rather than to genuinely creative thinking. They say that money spend developing  the tests  could be put to better use in our chronically underfunded school system. Many highly sought-after middle and high schools do consider scores in their admissions process, which may place them out of reach for those who do not test at grade level or above. Some parents simply feel the testing experience is too stressful.

A significant minority of parents have therefore decided to opt out: in 2017 approximately one in five students in New York State did not sit for the state tests. (The opt-out rate in New York City is much lower: fewer than 5 percent of students in the five boroughs declined to take the tests, although in a few city schools, the opt-out rate reached 85 or 95 percent.)

At the same time, many parents don’t object to the annual ritual. Some parents—and teachers too—believe the state tests are a useful measure of children’s mastery of essential Common Core subject matter and analytical skills. They also argue that, like it or not, students will be evaluated on standardized tests when they apply to college, and practicing from an early age will ultimately serve them well.

Because of the intense interest in the testing issue, a number of parent organizations have entered the fray. In some schools, parents have organized, either through the PA/PTA or the as a subcommittee of the School Leadership Team, to discuss questions such as the place of test prep in the school curriculum. Some have actively opposed high-stakes testing, protesting and petitioning the Department of Education. Other PA/PTAs wish to remain more neutral, but offer information to parent members who are looking for guidance.