Leaders of Long Island's anti-testing movement, whose boycott efforts captured national attention last year, are expanding their campaign of encouraging parents and students to opt out of the state's standardized Common Core assessments, scheduled for next month.
Other anti-testing protests, some inspired by New York's example, have cropped up in New Jersey, Florida and dozens of other states.
The movement has had a stark impact on the number of students in grades 3-8 in Nassau and Suffolk counties taking state tests since 2012 -- the last year that non-Common Core tests were given. The number of test-takers has dropped sharply through the latest test administration in spring 2014, even taking into account a simultaneous decline in enrollment, analysis of state Education Department data show.
In 2014, the number of Long Island students in grades 3-8 who took the state English Language Arts test dropped by more than 28,000, or 13.5 percent, from the 207,564 tested in 2012.
Long Island, as a region, led the state in the drop of ELA test-takers in grades 3-8. Statewide, the drop totaled about 54,000.
The number of students in grades 3-8 in Nassau and Suffolk taking the state math test showed a steeper decline, with 46,300 fewer test-takers in 2014 than in 2012 -- a 22.4 percent drop. But figures for the math test are not as consistent or reliable a comparison: For the first time last year, advanced eighth-graders were allowed to take the ninth-grade Regents algebra exams instead of the state's eighth-grade math tests.
Much of this year's anti-testing campaign, spearheaded by parents and teachers unions, is being conducted via Facebook and other social media. The effort's growing sophistication is allowing many parents who want to prevent their children from taking state tests to transmit test-refusal forms directly to school districts via electronic Internet link.
The next round of standardized tests in English is scheduled for April 14-16, and in math for April 22-24.
"You've got this groundswell among parents -- people saying we're all in this together," said one organizer, Jeanette Deutermann, a North Bellmore mother of two and co-founder of New York State Allies for Public Education, a statewide anti-testing umbrella group.
Michael Cohen, president of Achieve, a nonprofit education group based in Washington, D.C., acknowledged that the number of parents having their children opt out is significant in New York -- and particularly on Long Island. By doing so, he said, they risk not getting a full picture of their children's academic achievement and readiness for college.
"Tests aren't everything," Cohen said. "But I think parents miss something if they don't get the extra information that a test provides rather than simply getting feedback from a teacher."
Monday night, opt-out organizers are holding what they describe as their most ambitious public event to date. Allies for Public Education is co-sponsoring a rally at LIU Post in Brookville, in cooperation with a statewide group of school principals opposed to using student test results to help evaluate educators' job performance.
The keynote speaker will be Diane Ravitch, a New York University professor and leading education historian, who describes Long Island as "the epicenter of test rebellion."
The event, which is free to the public, will be at 7:30 p.m. in the 2,200-seat auditorium of the Tilles Center for the Performing Arts. The rally was moved from a smaller auditorium on another university campus when demand for tickets exceeded supply, organizers said.
The Allies group has set a statewide opt-out goal of 250,000 students in grades 3-8, though some local supporters said it's difficult to predict such numbers until testing actually begins.
Campaign organizers have announced a series of public forums on testing issues later this month in Hicksville, Bohemia, East Quogue, Port Washington, Floral Park and West Islip.
The flurry of activity reflects growing anxiety over the challenging Common Core tests and the use of test scores to help evaluate teachers -- both issues that had appeared to subside earlier in the school year.
The turning point came in December, when Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo vetoed a bill he had negotiated that granted teachers a two-year moratorium from performance evaluations based on student test scores. The governor, in defending the veto, noted that more than 98 percent of teachers outside New York City had been rated "effective" or better on the job -- an outcome he called "baloney."
Emotions run high
Local school administrators said they've never seen emotions run higher over testing -- a development some blamed on gubernatorial "overreach."
"You're putting an inordinate amount of pressure on students, not only for themselves, but also in terms of the potential effect on their teachers and their jobs," said Michael Hynes, superintendent of Patchogue-Medford schools. "That's something that school districts have never experienced before."
Last month, Hynes sent a letter to thousands of parents in his district, assuring them that students would not be penalized if they opted out of state testing. The letter included a form allowing parents to indicate whether they want their children to take the exams. Several other Suffolk County districts have sent similar letters.
Locally, Charles Russo, superintendent of East Moriches schools, was one of the few educators to speak in favor of Common Core testing at forums that featured then-Education Commissioner John B. King Jr., held last year and in late 2013.
"I would always encourage our parents to let their children take the tests," Russo said Friday. "I believe tests are a crucial part of our school program."
Under the No Child Left Behind law, districts may face financial consequences if the number of students taking federally required tests falls below a 95 percent participation rate, affecting annual measures of a district's or school's standing. That could put districts at risk of ineligibility for certain state grants, according to the state Education Department.
Dina Phillips, a Selden parent active in the opt-out movement, said she refused testing for her son last year for the first time when he started coming home with migraine headaches prompted by apparent pretesting stress. The boy is opting out again this year, and his mother recently helped establish an Internet link making it easier for local parents to transmit test-refusal forms to Middle Country school officials.
The district received 108 forms within the first 24 hours, and now has more than 360, Phillips said.
"My feeling was, why put my son through this, if it doesn't affect his grade," she said.
The governor weighs in
Cuomo administration officials noted that the governor last spring supported a new law stipulating that test scores were not to be placed in students' permanent records for five years, or used as the primary factor in class promotions and placements.
The governor has said repeatedly that his stance should not be construed as anti-teacher, though he has clashed politically with New York State United Teachers, the statewide union representing teachers and other professional school workers.
"We want to reward the high-performing teachers, we want to get those teachers that need help the help and support," Cuomo told reporters in Rochester a week ago. "But if you are a poorly performing teacher for several years, then we want to get those teachers out of the classroom."
New York is not the only state where there is test anxiety.
In New Jersey, hundreds of students in several affluent suburbs opted out on the first day of state testing this month, according to The Record in Bergen County. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, an estimated 900 high school students were said to have walked out of a state exam.
Both New Jersey and New Mexico are part of a national testing consortium of states known as the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC. The consortium has been encouraged by President Barack Obama's administration as a way of promoting uniform, computer-based tests aligned with the national Common Core academic standards.
New York State officially is part of the same consortium, but has decided to administer its own tests -- in part because it began Common Core testing earlier than most states.
Bob Schaeffer, a critic of standardized testing, said that New York has exerted an outsize influence on the opt-out movement -- in part because of the sheer size of test refusals in the state.
Schaeffer is public education director for FairTest, a Boston-based nonprofit group that spotlights flaws in college admissions exams and other standardized tests.
"Last year, New York State far and away had the most opt-outs anywhere in the country, and was a model for assessment reformers around the country," Schaeffer said. "Unquestionably, these other states -- especially New Jersey, because it's just across the water -- have been influenced by what happens in New York State."
The New York State Education Department, which oversees testing, has said it does not collect numbers of students who refuse to take the standardized tests. School districts do, however, report to the agency the overall number of students who do not take the exams, whether because of absence, refusal or any other reason.