Parent leaders and advocacy groups are calling on the Department of Education to halt a new social and emotional screening test in NYC public schools, calling it “invasive” and raising concerns over privacy, security and transparency.
The city has begun rolling out the Devereux Students Strengths Assessment, or DESSA, for kindergarteners through high school students.
The survey consists of just over 40 questions that are intended to be completed by a teacher or faculty member who has come to know a child well since the beginning of the school year.
It asks questions such as “During the past four weeks, how often did the child carry herself/himself with confidence” and “How often did the child accept responsibility for what she/he did?”
The New York City Parents Union, the Parent Leaders for Accelerated Curriculum Education NYC, Queens Parents United and the South Asian Fund for Education Scholarship Training put out a press release last Friday criticizing how the DOE sent notices to parents that did not include information on how to opt out and how some parents did not receive the notice at all.
Sources allege that several public schools started rolling out the tests without notifying parents at all.
Nathaniel Styer, deputy press secretary for the Department of Education, maintains that all parents were notified.
“The social-emotional health of our students has never been more critical, and all families were sent letters about this tool with instructions on how to easily opt-out,” he said in an email.
“This screener is a research-backed tool that will help us quickly get support to students who need it,” he said in an email.
Parents were also angered by the last-minute notice that they did receive, which, in some cases, only gave them a week to write a letter stating they would be opting their child out, as the memo instructed. Parents are specifically told to write a letter stating that they do not want a staff member to complete the screener for their child and in some cases that letter also has a due date.
“The Department of Education should extend the opt-out deadline until every parent has been informed of their rights to opt-out of this survey,” said Maud Maron, vice president of PLACE NYC and former president of Community Education Council 2 in Manhattan, in the statement.
“The DOE must immediately communicate to parents of New York City public school students the reason for this survey and how the answers will be used. The DOE must also answer questions related to data storage and security.”
Aperture Education, the company that developed the tool, acceded to security agreements that comply with privacy laws, according to DOE officials.
Jean Hahn, a Rego Park parent advocate and co-founder of Queens Parents United, urged the DOE to pause the screenings until more information in multiple languages could be reviewed and called for more transparency on what the screenings will do. She also proposed an option to opt in rather than only opt out.
Mona Davids, founder of the NYC Parents Union, continued with concerns over privacy.
“The New York City Department of Education’s continued efforts to mine student data and circumvent parental rights continues with DESSA.”
The press release also said it is unclear if non-English speaking families received the notices.
The statement also asked, “Are teachers qualified to make this type of assessment that would normally be performed by pediatric behavioral psychologists or social workers? Does it make sense to require teachers who are already burdened with addressing wide learning losses in the classroom to take time out for this?”
The United Federation of Teachers recently came to an agreement with the DOE to allow teachers time during their workday to complete the assessment.
“While we all agree about the importance of supporting our students’ social-emotional well-being, we don’t agree with the DOE’s choice of such a time-consuming screener — especially in a year where we are already spread so thin,” the union said in an email to teachers.
The agreement stated that teachers could spend four hours of their workday to complete the screener but the coalition of parent groups estimate that would only allow about eight minutes to answer the questions for a class of 34 students.
DOE officials estimate that it will only take about two and a half minutes to complete.
DESSA concerns also came up in an online CEC 26 meeting on Tuesday night.
Cathy Grodsky, president of the District 26 PTA Presidents’ Council, raised the question, “Why are we not asking these questions to the children if we want to gauge how children are doing and how children are feeling?”
Instead, she said, administrators are “relying on teachers who have known students for a couple of weeks ... to answer these obscure questions that have been posed. It just seems ridiculous.”
One notice to parents sent for a Queens high school stated the tool would be completed by someone who knows the child “really well” and that parents could learn about the results at family conferences.
In a virtual town hall meeting on Tuesday night with CEC 27, School Chancellor Meisha Porter stood by the DESSA rollout, calling it an “asset-based approach to ensuring that our students and our teachers are aware of the social-emotional needs that our students are dealing with day to day.”
Katherine Jedrlinic, chief of staff at the DOE, said the department is asking all schools across the system to use the screener.
“The DESSA screener we picked after careful consideration because it will help ensure that schools think about every single student, take a minute to say, ‘how is this student dealing with being back in school, what have they been through?’”
DOE officials say the tool was researched extensively and found to be the only strengths-based assessment of students social-emotional development.
Jedrlinic said the screener can help identify if a student could benefit from extra support like individual or group counseling or a referral to a service.
DOE officials say that the questionnaire is not intended to be a mental health screener, rather a tool to match students with supports and connect them with clinicians if needed. There are no mandatory requirements regarding interventions.
They say the tool can be used by teachers at the classroom-level to identify social-emotional learning curriculum, at the school-wide level alongside counselors and social workers and to develop interventions for individual counseling, group counseling, mentoring and behavior intervention plans.