There are many empty seats in this 8th grade class...

There are many empty seats in this 8th grade class at Valley Stream Memorial Junior High School where students opt out of taking their English Language Arts test Thursday, April 16, 2015. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Nearly 65,000 students in Long Island elementary and middle schools refused to take the state English Language Arts test this week -- 43.6 percent of those in grades three through eight eligible for the exam, a Newsday survey of more than 80 percent of districts Islandwide found.

In 100 of the Island's 124 public school districts, 64,785 of 148,564 children opted out of the exam, according to figures the districts reported.

A handful of school systems, including Commack and Great Neck, declined to disclose figures for the number of students eligible to take the exam and the number who refused. Some districts did not respond to the newspaper's request for the figures, or gave only a single number or percentage.

The English Language Arts exam was given Tuesday through Thursday, with more than 1 million students statewide eligible to take it.

"Parents are speaking and are saying 'Enough is enough,' and they have had it with students spending this amount of time taking tests," said Mark Nocero, superintendent of the Eastport-South Manor school district, where more than 65 percent of eligible students refused to take the exam.

High levels of student refusals also had been reported upstate, in school systems in the Albany area, Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse. There is no state agency or official organization that gathers data on the number of students not taking the state test during the actual days of the exam's administration.

Controversy over the state tests in English Language Arts and math has pitted parents and teacher unions against Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and his administration, particularly as students' scores on the tests were made a significant part of measuring teacher job performance. The state math test in grades three through eight is to be given April 22 through 24.

Parents have lambasted the state's policies, saying their children are being over-tested and are spending inordinate hours of classroom time on test preparation -- all for exams they say do not truly measure students' knowledge. Pushback against the tests on Long Island started two years ago, soon after exams aligned with the national Common Core academic standards were launched.

Some educators and activists have said a large number of test refusals would invalidate any teacher evaluation tied to testing.

A vigorous defense

The state Education Department has vigorously defended the exams and warned that districts may face financial penalties if student participation falls below federal benchmarks.

Education officials said the tests remain valid as a measurement of where students stand. Jonathan Burman, an agency spokesman, said Thursday, "The department will be able to generate a representative sample of students who took the test, generate valid scores for anyone who took the test, and calculate valid state-provided growth scores to be used in teacher evaluations."

Last year -- the second year of significant levels of test refusals in Nassau and Suffolk counties -- nearly 9,500 students in 67 districts opted out, according to Newsday's survey on the final day of ELA testing last April.

Thursday, the Plainedge district reported 74 percent of its eligible students refused to take the test, while the Bellmore-Merrick, North Bellmore and Sayville districts were among those reporting that more than 60 percent of eligible students refused.

A few districts -- Amagansett, East Hampton, Manhasset, Roosevelt and Valley Stream 30 -- reported less than 10 percent opted out. All eligible students in the tiny Fishers Island and Wainscott systems took the exam.

In the Sag Harbor district, 138 students refused the test, compared with six last year.

"I had parents who thoughtfully said, 'We have to send a message to New York State,' and this is how they thought they could send a political message," Superintendent Katy Graves said.

She saw an increase of interest in test refusals soon after Karen Magee, head of the state's 600,000-member teacher union, called on parents to boycott the state tests -- the first time the organization took that stance publicly.

Carl Korn, spokesman for New York State United Teachers, said Thursday, "What we are seeing is a revolt against the governor's test-and-punish agenda, and repudiation of the misuse of standardized tests."

Cuomo's office did not comment Thursday.

The groundswell of opposition is expected to be repeated -- or grow -- when the math test is given next week. Last year, 10,765 students in 64 districts on the Island refused to take that exam, according to Newsday's survey then.

Jeanette Deutermann of Bellmore, a parent organizer of the opt-out movement on Long Island who was tracking test refusals, said state leaders cannot ignore the large numbers.

"Our message is finally starting to make an impact," she said. "This is no longer just some noise being made. This is a true stance, and we are going to change the way they are using testing in New York State."

Parents 'positive'

In the Valley Stream Central High School district, Superintendent Bill Heidenreich said students who refused the exam spent instructional time quietly in either a library or auditorium. The district's test-refusal rate was about 25 percent.

Parents who contacted the school before the start of testing "were very positive about the school . . . and this has nothing to do with the school board, the principal or teachers,' " Heidenreich said. "They went out of their way to say their decision to opt out was, by and large, directed at the state and the direction of current education policy."

Deborah Brooks, parent of a fifth-grader in Port Washington, said she had her daughter refuse to take the ELA this week, as she did last year. She said the tests are flawed and do not provide any useful information to parents.

"I would hope that the reasons the majority of parents are doing it are the reasons this whole movement started. And that is to say that these tests are not valid," Brooks said.

Steve Lefkowitz had his twin daughters -- in sixth grade at Roslyn Middle School -- take the test. Throughout their education, he said, his children will face many exams.

"This is a test mandated by the state. Whatever our feelings might be, whatever the scores may or may not mean, there shouldn't be a feeling that taking the test is a choice," Lefkowitz said.

With Zachary R. Dowdy

and Joan Gralla

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