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Fri Sep 11, 2015, 11:05 PM

These New York Schools Aren’t Just Letting Kids Opt Out of Testing—They’re Giving Them an Alternativ


 s a new school year begins, top administrators are no doubt dreaming that the ill-advised adults who have been stirring up trouble will finally fall in line. Perhaps to raise the high stakes even higher, New York State Commissioner of Education MaryEllen Elia warned over the summer that districts whose students boycott the test in particularly high numbers this coming spring could be sanctioned or even lose their Title I funds. (The chancellor of the State Board of Regents has since said that money will not be withheld.)

Now, as the opt-out opposition plans its next steps, what will parents do? Will the movement continue to snowball, or will it melt in the months ahead? And, more crucially, will this grassroots insurrection turn out to be just a massive pushback against standardized testing, with the goal of making kids take fewer tests—or are we about to revive American public education from the intellectual asphyxiation caused by years of corporate education reform?

 ong time educational innovator Deborah Meier has been asserting for years that “America needs a different discussion about what the point of education is.” With so much discontent building up within the system—and with the so-called education-reform movement going up in flames in places like Newark (see Dale Russakoff’s newly published book, The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools)—the time is ripe to reexamine the goals and values of our kids’ school experience: to begin talking about the kind of system parents should opt into, not just the kind they should opt out of.

Remarkably, examples of “opt-in” models already exist at the high school level, with many of them thriving within the New York City public school system. Thirty-eight schools in the statewide New York Performance Standards Consortium have waivers exempting their students from having to take most Regents exams, the statewide standardized tests required of all high-school students, as well as other uniform measures of achievement. In their place, they have what Ann Cook, executive director of the Consortium, calls “a different vehicle for accountability”: rigorous “performance-based” assessments that are individualized, student focused, research oriented and often interactive.

The Consortium schools have their origin in the small-schools movement, which took root in New York in the 1970s and after. In those earlier days, the New York City Board of Education had a division to promote alternative schools and a “superintendent of alternative schools and programs” who supported experimentation. With his help, educators like Meier and Cook appealed to the state commissioner of education, Thomas Sobol, arguing that they had designed ways to assess students outside the Regents framework and that, in fact, having to teach kids for the Regents exams undermined their instructional pedagogy. In an act of leadership that could scarcely be imagined today, Sobol agreed, granting a small corps of schools official waivers from most Regents exams.

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