Explaining NYC’s Opt Out Numbers


In April, an estimated 209,000 students opted out of the New York State English Language Arts (ELA) exam, but in New York City, the numbers were quite small.

I’m always surprised when reporters and others ask why NYC has a much lower test refusal rate than many other parts of the state. My first inclination is to ask why they would expect the city’s rate to be similar to the suburbs of Long Island or upstate. But then again, I’m a sociologist so I tend to view these things in terms of political dynamics – including the different geopolitics of urban, suburban and rural areas – as well as social class and race/ ethnicity. Viewed through these lenses, NYC’s opt out rate isn’t all that surprising.

Let’s be clear: when so-called  education “reformers” talk about “failing schools,” they’re not talking about the schools on suburban Long Island. They’re not talking about schools in the suburbs of NYC, Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Albany. They’re talking about urban, high-poverty schools. So when public officials threaten to close or otherwise punish “failing” schools, they’re largely talking about schools in NYC and other large cities.

Don’t forget that the state owes NYC more than $5 billion in school funds from the Campaign for Fiscal Equity settlement. Numerous superintendents, principals and even teachers warned parents that schools would be harmed or would lose funding if too many students opt out. In short, NYC schools, in addition to being perpetually underfunded, get threatened a lot, in a way that’s not true for suburban schools.

NYC schools have been under mayoral control since 2002. We have no elected school boards as the rest of the state has. Those boards can sometimes be a central point of leverage for parents. NYC parents have nothing comparable. We have Community Education Councils (CECs) – elected parent bodies which essentially have no power except over zoning issues.

For 10 years under Mayor Bloomberg, NYC children could not be promoted to the next grade unless they passed the state exams. Although the NYS legislature passed a law last year stating that state test scores could no longer be used as the sole or primary basis for promotion, that didn’t stop countless NYC principals from telling parents that their children would be sent to summer school or not be promoted if they didn’t take the state tests.

Given that state test scores were the primary basis for promotion in NYC for 10 years, it should surprise no one that the way schools are now using test scores in the promotion process is widely inconsistent from school to school.

Further, 4th grade scores are used by screened schools in the middle school admissions process in NYC and 7th grade scores are used by screened schools for high school admissions. This is another anomaly in NYC – most of the rest of the state does not have admissions processes for middle and high school.

In some parts of NY State, including Long Island, teachers and administrators have felt free to express their concerns about the state tests. Educators have expressed many of the same concerns voiced by parents: some of the tests are developmentally inappropriate for children, particularly those in the younger grades, those with special needs and English Language Learners. In terms of the big picture, the use of test scores for teacher evaluation and other high-stakes purposes distorts the education process and has led to a narrowing of the curriculum. In NYC, where resources are scarce, families have seen music, art, physical education and even science disappear.

Whatever criticisms educators might have of high-stakes testing in NYC, the leadership of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), which is the largest local of NYSUT, the state teachers union, has made it absolutely clear that they do not support opt out and will not protect any teacher saying anything that could be construed as promoting opt out among parents. In contrast, NYSUT locals in some areas, particularly Long Island,  have been in the forefront of promoting opt out.

On top of all these other factors, add in that many NYC parents don’t even know they have the option of refusing the tests on behalf of their children. Countless other parents have language barriers, making it all the more difficult for them to understand their rights. In short, for any of you who are still confused about why NYC would not have the same kind of test refusal numbers as Long Island, let me summarize it for you:

  • When so-called education “reformers” talk about “failing schools,” they’re gunning for NYC schools and schools in other urban areas.
  • Under Mayor Bloomberg, mayoral control was used to produce a culture of fear throughout the education system – it affected administrators, teachers, parents and students. And it has not gone away.
  • For 10 years, promotion in NYC was based on the tests. Many schools have not yet adapted to the state legislation stating that the tests can no longer be used as the sole or primary basis for promotion. Principals routinely used threats of summer school and holding kids back to discourage parents from opting out.
  • Some parents, particularly those in Title I schools, were incorrectly told their schools would lose funding if students opted out.
  • Further, 4th grade scores are used by many screened schools in the middle school admissions process in NYC and 7th grade scores are used by screened schools for high school admissions.
  • Most NYC parents don’t even know that refusing the tests is an option. Many of those who do know are too scared to do so.

Any questions?

My Take on Education “Reform” in New York State

NKC testimony 10 29 13_7

In late October 2013, I testified at a hearing of the New York Senate education committee, which at the time was chaired by Senator John Flanagan, who is now the Senate Majority Leader. The hearing was one of many held around the state about the “Regents Reform Agenda.” I used the opportunity not only to criticize said agenda from my perspective as a New York City public school parent but also to provide a political analysis of the faux narrative of a “crisis” in public education and the giant disconnect between research and the so-called reforms being forced upon K-12 educators, parents and students in NYS.

So why, you might ask, am I posting testimony that is a year and a half old? The reality is that very little has changed except that Governor Cuomo and the NYS Education Department have doubled down on high-stakes testing, including the use of test scores to evaluate teachers and to close, or take over, schools. And the parent backlash has intensified, resulting in an estimated 209,000 opt outs last spring.

My testimony will tell you a lot about my perspective on what’s happening in public education. You can read it in full here or watch the abbreviated version I delivered in person (which is particularly fun if you like a lot of gesticulating).

Here’s are some key excerpts:


Education reform at the federal, state and city levels is largely being driven by the assertion that U.S. students are falling behind internationally and not graduating from high school ready to succeed in college and in a global labor market. This argument – often stated as irrefutable fact – has been used to rationalize the nationwide imposition of the Common Core (CC), which has been sold as a set of high academic standards that will teach critical thinking and result in deep learning. We are told that the situation is dire and that our very economic future is at stake, which is in turn used to justify subjecting public school children to extensive standardized testing linked to high stakes for themselves, their teachers and their schools.

The problem is that every part of the narrative about “the crisis in U.S. public education” has been shown to be overly simplistic, lacking in evidence, ideologically suspect or just plain wrong. Below, I employ my critical thinking skills – which I acquired from a high-quality public education – to unpack three of the taken-as-fact claims upon which current education reforms are predicated.

Claim #1: American Students are Falling Behind Internationally 

When disaggregated, international rankings of academic achievement repeatedly show that U.S. students from middle- and upper-income families perform quite well when compared to students from other countries. Another way to disaggregate U.S. performance data is by state. A recent analysis finds that Massachusetts trailed only four nations in 8th grade math performance. These data indicate that the highest-performing American states are wealthy, racially and ethnically homogeneous and/or have relatively low levels of child poverty (see figure)….

Far from falling behind as a nation, our most advantaged students continue to be quite competitive internationally. But due to near unprecedented levels of wealth and income inequality in this country, a growing portion of our nation’s children live in low-income families with few assets to fall back on in hard times. The U.S. now has the highest level of child poverty since 1960.

Claim #2: Education is the Antidote to Child Poverty

The richest nation on Earth – and one that purports to value democracy and equality – should not allow children’s socioeconomic status to determine their life chances. Yet that’s exactly what we currently do. We refuse to acknowledge as a nation that high rates of poverty and wealth inequality are holding us back: socioeconomic status continues to be the primary predictor of academic achievement in the U.S.

Given the rhetoric of education officials, one would never know that the national “achievement gap” between black and white students has narrowed considerably over time while the income gap in academic performance has steadily increased…..

Education reform alone will never solve the constellation of problems that can compromise the academic performance of low-income children. Not only do they enter kindergarten woefully behind their more affluent peers, low-income children confront a wide range of obstacles to doing well in school: inadequate nutrition; untreated medical, dental and vision problems; undiagnosed learning disabilities; and importantly, parents who are working multiple jobs, are constantly stressed about making ends meet and who often don’t have time to attend parent/teacher conferences or help their children with homework….

The sad truth is that we know what works to boost academic achievement among low-income kids, but policymakers continue to forge ahead with unproven reforms, ignoring decades of research. Proven strategies to improve school performance among our most vulnerable children include: increasing family income, providing high-quality comprehensive early childhood programs from birth, reducing class size (especially in the lower grades) and sending children to schools that are integrated socioeconomically and racially/ethnically.

Claim #3: American High School Graduates are Not College Ready

Enter the phrase “NYS college readiness rates” into Google search and the top entries all carry the same message: despite incremental improvements in high school graduation rates across NYS, fewer than half of these graduates are prepared to do college-level work. The implication is that high schools are pushing students out the door who should not have been allowed to graduate. An underlying assumption here is that anyone who graduates from high school should be capable of doing “college-level work,” although what this actually means is rarely defined.

Predictions are that while most jobs in the future will require some type of post-secondary credential, most of them will not require a 4-year college degree but rather a professional certificate or associates degree. To put the discourse about “college and career ready” into perspective, just under a third of Americans have a 4-year college degree. Even among young adults under 30, the percentage is roughly the same – just 30% of adults 25 and older hold a bachelor’s degree or higher….

The conversation about the need for post-high-school remediation focuses primarily on community college students. But there are actually some good-news reasons for this. A higher percentage of low-income students are enrolling in college than ever before, with most of the increases occurring at community colleges. Many of these students are the first in their families to attend college. In short, one reason that more community college students are struggling is that far more high school graduates are opting to pursue post-secondary education….

I completely support efforts to re-assess our approach to high school to find better ways to prepare students for a variety of post-high-school pathways. But there is no evidence that implementing a one-size-fits-all “college and career ready” approach to K-12 will prepare more high school graduates to succeed in college or the labor market.


As a nation of immigrants with diverse backgrounds spread across a vast land, the American ideal of public education holds that it should facilitate social cohesion and reduce religious, ethnic, racial and socioeconomic conflict. By providing the space for people of varied backgrounds to come together and develop shared cultural understandings, public education at its best should prepare our children to be good citizens and enrich our democracy.

Nonetheless, the question of whether the U.S. should have a single set of educational standards for the entire nation has always been contentious and the U.S. Department of Education is actually prohibited from developing one. In the abstract, I personally support having at least a minimal set of consistent academic standards that the entire country should adhere to. This stance is consistent with the widely-held American value that all children, regardless of background or geography, should have access to a high-quality public education.

Although reasonable people can debate the pros and cons of using national standards to raise the quality of public education, we haven’t had that debate as a nation. Instead, from the perspective of most parents, Common Core came out of nowhere. Education officials, starting with those at the federal level, have provided dishonest descriptions about the origins, development and roll out of Common Core….


As policymakers, you may be focused on the latest round of reforms: the introduction of Common Core, the implementation of a new generation of standardized tests aligned to CC and the creation of an entirely new battery of tests to evaluate teachers. As many stakeholders have argued, it’s been too much, too fast with little evidence this enormous agenda will accomplish its stated goals.

But from the perspective of many parents, this is simply the latest phase in a decade-long national experiment with public school children. While I fully appreciate that much of this is federally driven, for the vast majority of parents, it really doesn’t matter where it’s coming from – we just know how it affects our kids and our families….

The bottom line is that these reforms have little credibility with parents, rank-and-file educators and experts. They are not based on research and there is no evidence they will work. They are the product of corporate interests and influence. They have been sold to the public based on a “crisis” that doesn’t exist (or at least not the right crisis). We have been lied to and condescended to. And now we’re really angry. We will remain angry until these corporate-backed policies are rescinded and until teachers – trained, experienced professionals – are put back in charge of educating our children.

Read the full version here.