Long Island Opt-Out: why parents are refusing the high-stakes tests

Photo from http://herricksta.ny.aft.org

By Abby Del Vecchio and Kayla Shults

Teachers have always used assessments to drive instruction.  Tests help teachers determine comprehension of the material, monitor strengths and weaknesses and identify whether or not topics need to be retaught, modified or enriched.  Testing is a way to monitor their teaching, as well as their students’ knowledge.

During the 2012-2013 school year, in response to the Common Core Learning Standards, a new type of high stakes testing was implemented across the country, to all third through eighth grade students.  A high-stakes test is any particular exam that is a single, defined assessment, has a clear line drawn between passing and failing, and has something at stake, with direct consequences for passing or failing.

In reality, these tests are more likely to affect teachers than students.

The test is graded on a basis that is almost too simple and leaves more questions than answers. Math and English Language Arts are the only two subjects these students are tested on, and they are graded on a scale of one to four, with the passing score of three or four, being determined after all exams have been scored.

There are 180 topics to be taught each year, which means a new topic to learn each school day. Joseph Rella, PhD, superintendent of the Comsewogue School District in Port Jefferson Station, NY, said this leaves little to no time for learning about any other subjects, such as social studies and science, and does not allot time for snow days and assemblies.

Jeanette Deutermann, founder of the Long Island Opt-Out Movement and mother of two from Bellmore, NY, said her son experienced stomach aches while in the fourth grade because of the pressure he felt to do well on these high stakes tests.

“I had the doctor check him out, and I asked if we should be running tests. They ran a blood test to try to find out what was going on, if there was something physically wrong,” she said. “And what they concluded was that it was stress, anxiety. This was a couple months before the test. The stomach aches stopped the day I told my son he wouldn’t be taking these tests.”

Elementary and middle school students are being taught for a test, leaving them stressed and confused. In some cases, students were so set on doing well on these exams that it caused actual physical illnesses.

In response to these high stakes tests that were stressing out children, both in and outside of the classroom, making them hate going to school, Deutermann discovered there was a way to prevent students from having to take these tests, which is how the Opt-Out movement got started on Long Island.  Opting out simply means the student will not sit for these exams.

What began in upstate New York quickly became popular across the state. According to the New York State Allies for Public Education, it is very simple for parents to opt their children out, or refuse the high stakes tests.

All parents have to do is download the refusal letter, which is available in numerous languages. This letter thanks the school district’s administrators for their dedication to the schools, but states that the child will not participate in the testing,  and should be graded as though they refused to take the tests. The letter also asks that an alternative activity be in place for children who are not being tested.

A main concern of the parents and teachers is that teacher evaluations are based on the students’ performance on these high stakes tests.

And although parents do have concerns, there are still students across Long Island who are taking these tests. Our inquiries for comments from these parents in school districts across Long Island have gone unanswered.

Maria Brown, a mother of three and a third grade teacher at South Country Elementary School in the Bay Shore School District, said 17 students, in any combination, must take the tests in math and ELA in order for the teachers to be evaluated.

For years, teachers were evaluated based on observations of their teaching style, lesson plans and effectiveness in the classroom. As of right now, 40 percent of a teacher’s evaluation comes from these tests –  20 percent for state tests, and 20 percent for local tests (which districts can choose not to do).  The other 60 percent is based on observations done by the principal or supervisor.  As part of the new state budget, which passed April 1, 2015, Gov. Cuomo has pushed for the high stakes tests to have an even greater impact on teacher evaluations.

Many argue that putting students through all of this stress and anxiety for an exam that is used to evaluate teachers, not the students taking them, is unfair.  Some supporters of the Opt-Out Movement say they believe that students are being used as pawns in the governor’s war on teachers.

The Comsewogue School District has been at the forefront of the Opt-Out Movement since it began in 2013. This year in Comsewogue alone, 82% of third through eighth grade students did not take the reading tests and nearly 85% did not take the math exams.

Beth Dimino, an eighth grade science teacher at the John F. Kennedy Middle School and President of the Port Jefferson Station Teachers Association equated these tests to something more extreme than stress-inducing.

Child Abuse.

“I will never be put in the position where I cannot help a child,” said Dimino. “As a New York state teacher I am required by state law to be a mandated reporter for child abuse. This, in my opinion, is child abuse. I believe that I contributed to that last year and in the years past when I did administer these tests.”

Dimino says she feels so strongly about the Opt-Out Movement that she is willing to risk losing her job.

“I refused to administer the tests with the full understanding that the district [Comsewogue] can choose not to reassign me,” Dimino said. “This district chose to reassign me, but the district could have chosen to write me up for insubordination and filed charges against me.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, an avid supporter of the Common Core curriculum and the high-stakes testing that go along with it, has said that the tests do nothing for the students taking the tests.

“The grades are meaningless to the students,” Cuomo told parents.  “They can opt out if they want to, but on the other hand if the child takes the test, it’s practice and the score doesn’t count.”

By saying this, it has only angered parents more.

“What sparked a lot of this movement this year and a lot of the explosion of the Opt-Out Movement was Cuomo declaring war on the teachers,” said Deutermann. “That’s the part that he he just has never understood. You cannot hurt teachers without hurting kids. You can’t do it to one without doing another.”

Data journalism: an easier way to read news stories

Almost a year ago, The New York Times launched their new data journalism section, The Upshot, on April 22, 2014.  This new feature focuses on politics, policy, economics and more, in an interactive format different from other sections on their website.

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While browsing through the website, I read through some of the latest stories, but only one sparked my interest.  The title alone, “1.5 Million Missing Black Men” seemed interesting enough.

The article starts off with a couple of graphs followed by a couple of paragraphs of text.  That is how the whole article is written.  I have found that personally, when articles are written in this form, text broken up with photos or other figures, it is easier to read.

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Not only is it easier to read the information that is in these graphs, but it is also more visually appealing.  Some of the NYT articles I have read, I have clicked out of, because they were too long or because there was too much text, with nothing breaking it up.

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The Upshot is different.  These graphs and figures seem more interactive and are much more appealing to the eye than other articles you would read on the NYT website.

Creating a presence on social media

Photo from forbes.com

This semester I created a twitter account with the sole purpose of tweeting newsy things, such as stories I have written, my friends have written, or stories I have read from news organizations that I have found interesting.  As of right now, I do not have many followers — I only have 50 — but considering I do not tweet very much, I do not think that is an awful follower count.

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I plan to increase my followers by tweeting more often, with hashtags, so more people can see what I am posting.  I do need to work on sharing my work.  I tend to only share the work I am happy with or proud of, but I really should share everything.  Even if I am not happy with the way something turned out doesn’t mean other people won’t enjoy it.  After all, we are our own biggest critic.

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I do not use Instagram for journalistic purposes, and unless I am posting a picture of myself at the anchor desk for Newsbreak, my Instagram is used for entertainment purposes only.  I also do not use Facebook that much. The only time I do, it is to post articles I have written.

Overall, I hope to expand my use of social media for journalistic purposes and gain followers in the process.  I hope to do so through my use of hashtags and upping my content.

Freedom of expression

Photo from expressyourselff.yolasite.com

Teresa Tagliaferri, a 21 year-old sociology and health science double major at Stony Brook University, is like many of her peers in regards to what she believes her right to freedom of expression is.

When putting on the screening of the film “Free the Nipple” at her quad last month, Tagliaferri was nervous about playing such a controversial film, but was encouraged by her supervisor that the event was not harmful or inappropriate, but informational because of the important topic the film discusses, such as freedom of expression.

Tagliaferri knows that while some things are not appropriate to say or post online, every person should be allowed to express themselves freely without worry of consequences.

‘Serial’ podcast listening

I have never listened to podcasts before, not for any particular reason other than the fact that I have just never thought of it.  For the past several days, I have been listening to Serial, a podcast that is told week by week by host and reporter Sarah Koenig.

Photo from dailymail.com
Photo from dailymail.com

The first season focuses on the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee and the subsequent trial and conviction of her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed.  Koenig notices that there are holes in the stories told by Syed and the others brought in for questioning all those years ago, so she dives deep into the case and tries to piece together just what happened the day Lee went missing.

Screenshot by Abby Del Vecchio

I am only on episode six, so I do not know how the story ends, but I cannot wait to find out. The show is addicting, in a way I didn’t think podcasts could be.  I mostly listen while driving, because it is hard to stay concentrated on every word Koenig says, without visual aspects, because every word she says is important.  It is a mystery story after all.

Koenig talks in a clear, crisp voice and has background music play every once in a while.  It keeps the show fresh and lively.  Koenig also has tons of sound bites she has gathered from interviews with key players of the murder herself, as well as police tapes from 1999.  Koenig gathers natural sound and strategically places it throughout each show, making listeners really feel as if they are immersed in the situation.  The way Koenig explains each situation is spoken with such description and clarity that it almost forces listeners to have a picture painted in their minds of each scene she is describing.

At no point, at least so far in the series, does Koenig purposefully sway the listeners opinion of Syed, or his sketchy friend Jay Wilds.  All she does is state what she knows.  She does the very journalistic thing by not putting her thoughts on the matter.  She will occasionally say things like, “this doesn’t add up to me, but it doesn’t mean I think Adnan is innocent, or guilty,” but that’s as close as she gets to her opinion on Adnan, or even Jay’s, innocence or guilt.

I think Serial is produced in such a clear and understanding way, that makes me, and I am assuming other listeners as well, just want to keep listening.  I have paid attention to Koenig’s script and her introductions to each sound bites, hoping that I can catch on and do the same.  I think Serial is a great podcast to listen to, especially as inspiration for how to make your own podcast.

Why I chose journalism at Stony Brook University

Photo from newscaststudio.com

I have a pretty weird reason for becoming a journalism student.  I had originally wanted to go to school for communications and was going to go to City College of New York, but came to Stony Brook University to remain close to home instead.  Since Stony Brook doesn’t have a communications major, I decided to do journalism because it was similar.

The reason I wanted to study communications/journalism is because I have always wanted to be on TV.  I wanted to be an actress when I was younger, and when I decided that wasn’t going to happen, I decided I still wanted to do something revolving around TV.

What I really want to do is be a correspondent on E! News or Good Morning America.  I love entertainment news and fashion, so being a red carpet reporter is something I would really enjoy doing.

This semester, I am finally taking some broadcasting classes and even though it is hard news, rather than entertainment that I would prefer, I still am enjoying it more than I did my writing class.  Being on camera is fun, but kind of daunting.  I am very critical of myself, but who isn’t?

Even though this is not what I originally wanted to go to school for― or what I wanted to be when I “grew up”― I am glad that I have chosen Stony Brook’s School of Journalism, because I have required a set of skills that I never would have acquired elsewhere.

Photographing Studious Students

I really liked Jimin Kim and Janelle Clausen’s idea for assignment two, which was photographing students around campus studying for midterms.  I thought it was very timely, since both last week and this week, students are getting ready for their midterms.

I thought the photographs were really good, as well.  They didn’t looked posed and the photos really showed students working hard.  My favorite picture is the photo of the three students using the touch-screen to quiz each other.  I like how Jimin stood in front of them so you couldn’t see the board, you just saw the students reactions.  Jimin also got a photo of standing behind the students, so you can see the board as well as the girl’s face.  I like that he got both angles of the same situation.  I would have moved to the left just a little bit, to get not only the board and Rebecca Geller, but also Jimmy Shak’s face as well.

Photo by Jimin Kim
Photo by Jimin Kim
Photo by Jimin Kim
Photo by Jimin Kim






I also thought Janelle’s photos in the Union’s lounge came out really good.  The lighting in that room is dim so photographing can be difficult, but Janelle made it work and it helped show the atmosphere of the area.

Photo by Janelle Clausen
Photo by Janelle Clausen

Another thing I liked about Jimin and Janelle’s photo story was that they didn’t just take pictures of people studying.  There is one photo, that I really like, is just a hand holding a pen over some papers.  I thought that alone said a lot, and having the girl’s full body wasn’t necessary for this picture.

Photo by Jimin Kim
Photo by Jimin Kim

Overall, I thought Jimin and Janelle did a really good job telling a story of students studying for midterms through photos.  I liked the different angles and techniques they used, which helped to make the story more interesting.

Photographing Winter fashion on campus

It has been unbearably cold recently here in New York and because of this, people are wearing layers upon layers of clothing to keep just a little bit warm.

There are some celebrities who went to New York Fashion Week last week, who decided that looking good was more important than staying warm.

Because it is so cold and the need for warmth is incredibly high, it may be harder for people to dress the way they normally would.

As a student at Stony Brook University, one must walk around the large campus, braving the cold and high wind chills in order to get from building to building.  Although it has been warmer than last week, the weather is frigid.

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For the photo story homework assignment, my idea was to photograph students, faculty and staff on campus, in their winter wear.  I have noticed some people wear proper winter clothes while others, like some of the celebrities at Fashion Week, do not.

I think fashion is very interesting, because a person can truly express themselves through what they wear.  I love dressing nice but because it has been so cold, I have not been dressing as nice as I typically would, thinking comfort and warmth is more important.  Maybe the people who wear light clothes are immune to the cold, or maybe they just do not find Winter fashion as exciting as Spring or Summer.   Or perhaps it is all just in our heads.  Maybe their secret is to trick your mind into thinking you are warm.  That is what I plan on finding out with this assignment.

Either way, I think that photographing Winter wear on campus will be interesting.  I am also incredibly curious as to why people dress the way they do.  I am looking forward to meeting a diverse group of people, with diverse fashion sense.

Photojournalism Adds to Story Telling

This past Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2015 was Lent, where Christians all across the world give up their guilty pleasures during the weeks leading up to Easter.  BuzzFeed posted a photo news story today, Feb. 19, about Muslims showing their respect for Christians, by celebrating Lent.


Bassel Riche, an American Muslim, started the campaign to help change the negative stereotypes Muslims face.


Riche told BuzzFeed News, “I think the root problem with anti-Islamic sentiment in America and the rest of the world is a lack of understanding about Islam,” he said. “The amount of misinformation about Islam that is presented to people every day creates these negative views.”

Riche thought this movement was important, especially after the recent shooting in Chapel Hill that killed three Muslims, as well as the events in Paris and Copenhagen.


Riche has started using the hashtag #Muslisms4Lent, which has led to support from Muslims all over the world.


Riche told BuzzFeed his idea came from “fast-a-thins” which were held at his college.

“I would see people of differing faiths that opened their hearts and minds to us and our beliefs,” he said. “It was a few years later that I decided that it is our duty to do the same for them and the beliefs that they hold dear.”

Riche hopes this will help inform people of what Islam really is about.


BuzzFeed uses photojournalism for this story, using pictures of Muslims holding signs in support of Lent.  The photos make the story more interactive and is a great way to grab the readers attention.


NYT Tackles Live Tweeting During Fashion Week

Alexander Wang at NYFW for Fall 2015.  Photo by Catwalking/Getty Images

Mobile journalism has become increasingly popular in recent years, since social media is growing and changing constantly. More publications have taken to using their phones rather than DSLRs to take photos of events, so the images can be uploaded immediately to Twitter or other social networking sites.

New York Fashion Week for Fall 2015 started Feb. 12, 2015, and The New York Times’ Twitter page for fashion news, @NYTFashion, has been tweeting live updates from the fashion shows.

The New York Time fashion Twitter account has been updating fans with photos and inside scoops of the different shows throughout the week.

It is easy to tell that a phone was used rather than a DSLR, because the qualities in the photos are not that great, but after each show, @NYTFashion will tweet a link to their webpage featuring all the looks from each show, with better quality photos.

NYT Fashion will also retweet their journalists who are also live tweeting the shows. Alexandra Jacobs, a features writer and fashion critic for The New York Times and Stuart Emmrich, the Styles section editor for The New York Times, are just two of the journalists that are live tweeting and being retweeted by the NYT Fashion account.

Mobile journalism is a great way to inform your followers of what is going on in the world, whether it be an event, like Fashion Week, or a car crash that has caused lane closures.  For years now, I have been live tweeting events, such as award shows, or more recently, last night’s Saturday Night Live’s 40th Anniversary special.  It is a great way to inform followers and remain current in the media world.