Thousands of elementary and middle school students across New York will take state English Language Arts exams this week in the test season’s kickoff, with time allotted for test-taking cut by one-third — a response to boycotts that have been widespread on Long Island and statewide since 2015.
The change — from three days to two days of testing, with fewer questions — is among the latest efforts by the state Education Department and Commissioner MaryEllen Elia to answer criticism of the controversial assessments, which are required by federal law.
Opt-out activists have long said the tests, given to students in grades three through eight, do not accurately measure student achievement and that far too much class time is devoted to test preparation and exam-taking.
After the uprising by parents and some educators, the state Board of Regents voted last year to drop the “Common Core” name, drawn from the exams’ foundation on the Common Core Learning Standards adopted in 2010. The policymaking panel also has taken other steps: lessening the number of questions, making the tests untimed and including educators in the development and review of questions.
“Over the past three years, Commissioner Elia has listened to the concerns of parents and teachers and made significant changes to the exams as a result,” said Emily DeSantis, spokeswoman for the state Education Department. “It’s up to parents to decide if their children should take the tests, and we want them to have all the facts so they can make an informed decision.”
The ELA and math tests in traditional paper-and-pencil form have been given over portions of three school days since 2012. So the switch to giving the exams over two consecutive days — the English tests this week, and the math in early May — could take parents and students by surprise.
For both the ELA and the math tests, those two days are within windows of time designated by the Education Department. But it is local districts that decide which two days the exams will be given — and that may differ by school and even by grades within a school.
For example, the time frame set by the state for giving the paper-based ELA is Wednesday through Friday. Some schools have scheduled test days on Wednesday and Thursday, while others will give the exam on Thursday and Friday. And in another configuration, a handful of local schools will administer tests in the lower grades on Wednesday/Thursday and in upper grades on Thursday/Friday.
In addition, some districts are giving computer-based tests in some grades rather than paper-and-pencil exams. For the ELA, the state designated that these tests, known as CBTs, be given over two consecutive days from Tuesday through April 17.
On Long Island, 46 districts are giving computer-based ELA exams in some grades, and 37 districts are slated to do so for the math test in May, according to the Education Department.
Students’ scores on the standardized tests do not affect their ability to move on to the next grade nor are they currently used in teacher performance evaluations.
The Education Department says the tests are a useful measure of a child’s academic progress, and that parents and teachers can view the score reports — to be received by districts in the summer — as an indicator of skill level as compared with other students across the state. The agency also says the assessments help in evaluating what instruction is and isn’t working, identifying achievement gaps among student populations and discerning how well students are learning what is taught.
But for some parents adamantly opposed to the tests, dropping the moniker “Common Core” and shortening the test-taking time is not enough change for them to shift their stance.
Michele Giachetti, a parent in the Three Village school district, is opting out her son — a seventh-grader — from this week’s ELA test. She said she is not swayed by the changes to the assessments. Her older son, now in the 10th grade, boycotted the exams when he was younger.
“The only way I am going to opt my children in is when I see the test and they make it age-appropriate again,” said Giachetti, of Stony Brook. “Until the test is appropriately aligned and measures the children and their level and a little above — until then, I am going to refuse to participate, because it is a flawed measurement.”
Lars Clemensen, superintendent of the Hampton Bays school district and president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association, said the state has provided districts with clear materials and communication regarding the tests. He does not expect much change in test refusals this year, saying he anticipates “some new refusals and some opt-ins.”
New York State rolled out its first tests based on the national Common Core academic standards in spring 2013. The new assessments were troubled from the start: Scores of teachers complained the Education Department had not supplied adequate guides to the brand-new curriculum, many parents expressed deep concern about test questions and plunging passage rates, and test refusals began to occur on a small scale.
In the 2015 test season, with grassroots activism, boycotts ballooned statewide, and 20 percent of eligible students opted out of the ELA and math tests. The refusal rate statewide was 21 percent in 2016 and 19 percent last year.
Test refusals on the Island — known as the epicenter of the opt-out movement — have run much higher than the state average, with the majority of the 124 districts across Nassau and Suffolk counties having boycott rates of more than 40 percent.
Newsday’s surveys of the Island’s districts last spring, with responses from nearly all systems, found an average 51.2 percent of eligible students in grades three through eight refused to take the English exam and an average 53.6 percent boycotted the math test.
Last year, after a two-year review, the Regents dropped the Common Core name and adopted the Next Generation Learning Standards. The current tests retain questions based on the Common Core standards. Exams with material that fully reflect the Next Generation standards are slated to roll out in spring 2021.
This week in the Patchogue-Medford school district, the ELA exams will be given on Wednesday and Thursday.
Superintendent Michael J. Hynes, a strong advocate for a “whole child” approach to education, predicted that the test-refusal rate there — which ran at about 80 percent last year — will remain the same.
In an email, he said state officials are “trying to make it seem like the minor changes that have been made will have a positive impact on all children when it comes to the 3-8 state assessments.”
Hynes said there has been a lot of misinformation spreading this year about the exams, including that students could be penalized for refusing. Jeanette Deutermann, a Bellmore parent of two and founder of Long Island Opt Out, and Lisa Rudley, a Westchester County resident and parent leader, said the same.
“I have read about and heard stories of intimidation and bullying, as well as false claims that schools or students will be punished for opting out,” Hynes said. “The reality is no student will have a low score entered into their records for opting out, no school will be identified as failing because of high opt-out numbers, and no school will lose funding.”
Deutermann declined to predict whether test refusals would remain as high this year, but said the movement remains strong.
“Honestly, I think what the opt-out movement has done is create a momentum that is still carrying on now whether those numbers go up or down,” she said.
The state Education Department issued a memo to school leaders statewide in March detailing the summary of federal and state requirements regarding test participation.
The memo noted that the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, requires that 95 percent of students in each school and in each district participate in the yearly assessments. Local districts that fail to meet the goal could face intervention by regional BOCES superintendents, acting as representatives of the state Education Department.
High Achievement New York, a coalition of education, business and civic groups, is pushing for parents to “Say Yes to the Test,” joining other advocates at rallies in upstate New York, including Rochester and Buffalo.
They say the tests are a tool that allows teachers, schools and parents to track students’ progress, and to identify how they are succeeding and how they are struggling.
Stephen Sigmund, HANY’s executive director, said Friday he does not expect a dramatic swing one way or the other. The statewide trend, he said, shows greater test participation.
“There are some places — particularly on Long Island — where a lot of people have turned their backs on assessments and won’t come back,” he said.
In the William Floyd school district, third-graders will take the ELA on Wednesday and Thursday, and students in the fourth through eighth grades will take the exams Thursday and Friday.
Stacey Scalise, assistant superintendent for elementary instruction, administration and pupil personnel services, said the sessions were split to help meet staffing needs.
The district has about 4,100 students in six elementary schools and two middle schools who are eligible to take the ELA. Last year, the refusal rate was 50 percent.
“We need to have personnel in place to instruct students who have opted out to have an educational day, and we have to proctor the other 50 percent,” she said. “Having an extra day really allows us to move our personnel around.”
With Kathy Diamond and Michael R. Ebert
State tests in English Language Arts and mathematics for students in grades three through eight will be given during time frames designated by the state Education Department.
Individual school districts have chosen two consecutive days within those windows of time to administer the exams. Test days may differ by school and even by grades within a school.
Parents and students should check with their school to be certain of the days tests will be given, and whether those tests will be traditional paper-and-pencil exams or computer-based tests.
Paper-based: Wednesday — Friday
Computer-based: Tuesday — April 17
Paper-based: May 1 — May 3
Computer-based: May 1 — May 8
— Joie Tyrrell