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High opt-out rates expected on LI for state math tests

Melissa and Nathan Webb with their grandsons, fifth-grader

Melissa and Nathan Webb with their grandsons, fifth-grader Karlton Seaberry, left, and fourth-grader Kayden Seaberry at their Freeport home on Friday, April 21, 2017. The boys, students at Ulysses Byas Elementary School in the Roosevelt district, plan to take the state Common Core math test in the first week of May. Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

Long Island’s public schools are prepped for another sweeping boycott of state Common Core tests, with tens of thousands of students expected to opt out of mathematics exams that start Tuesday for most pupils in grades three through eight.

Educators and leaders of the opt-out movement said the momentum of test refusals remains strong across Nassau and Suffolk counties, where the English Language Arts test last month saw boycotts by more than 50 percent of eligible students in 116 of the Island’s 124 districts that responded to a Newsday survey. That percentage represented more than 97,000 students.

Other parts of the state, however, showed declines in ELA opt-outs compared with last year, according to separate canvasses by two organizations on opposite sides of the issue.

That has some questioning whether the parent and student revolt is losing steam elsewhere in New York. Each of the last two years saw fully 20 percent of eligible students statewide boycotting the tests.

Carol Burris, former principal of South Side High School in Rockville Centre, is among those who believes the high level of test refusals on Long Island will continue this week.

“What has to happen is simple: The tests need to dramatically change,” said Burris, now executive director of the Network for Public Education, a nonprofit national research and advocacy group based in Queens. “And not only does the test need to change . . . what they do with tests needs to change — parents do not want students’ test scores used to evaluate teachers.”

This is the fifth straight year of test refusals spurred by state-driven education reforms — an unprecedented mutiny that put New York and Long Island in the national spotlight. Opponents said the tests were too long, had questions inappropriate to children’s development and should not be tied to teachers’ performance evaluations.

The phenomenon has brought change. The state Education Department last year shortened the exams, established a statewide moratorium until 2019-20 on using test scores in teachers’ job ratings, and included teachers in devising test questions.

Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and her staff are “continually seeking input from parents, teachers, administrators — all stakeholders — on how we can make the tests better and move students toward success,” department spokeswoman Emily DeSantis said last week. “At the end of the day, it’s up to parents to decide what’s best for their children.”

The agency does not immediately release test-refusal percentages or numbers. Last year, the department made public the results of assessments in grades three through eight in July.

Melissa Webb, a grandmother of two students in the Roosevelt school district, is among those who see an important purpose in standardized testing. Her grandsons Kayden and Karlton Seaberry — in the fourth and fifth grades, respectively, at Ulysses Byas Elementary School — will take the math test, she said. They took the English exam last month.

“It gives you an idea of where the children are at on a national level. And it makes you competitive,” said Webb, a retired supermarket customer service manager. “If you see you’re dropping below, then you’re going to try to raise your score and rank higher.”

This week, the window for the math test starts Monday and closes a week later, on the Island and statewide.

The traditional pencil-and-paper tests will be given in most school systems Tuesday through Thursday. In fewer than 10 districts on the Island, computer-based tests will be given in some grades. Extra days were added to allow flexibility in giving the new electronic tests.

There is a significant difference in the number of students who take the math exam compared with the ELA, because some middle school students in accelerated math classes may not take it.

Districts can waive the state math test for seventh- and eighth-graders who will take the Regents exam in algebra and for those who will take the Regents exam in geometry.

Last year, nearly 53 percent of Long Island students in grades three through eight eligible for the exams — almost 89,000 schoolchildren — refused to take the Common Core math test in 106 districts that responded to a Newsday survey of all 124 systems.

Newsday focuses its data collection on test refusals in Long Island’s school systems. This year, two private advocacy groups, High Achievement New York and NYS Allies for Public Education, tracked the ELA boycott in roughly one-third of the state’s 700-plus school districts.

Both groups found similar patterns: More districts upstate experienced at least slight declines in percentages of students opting out of this year’s English test compared with 2016 results.

High Achievement, which is backed by business organizations and some parents, reported that percentages of students opting out were down in 154 districts statewide compared with last year, up in 66 districts and flat in 24 districts. The group supports state testing.

“The opt-out numbers are significantly down around the state in all areas except Long Island,” said Stephen Sigmund, High Achievement’s executive director. “We think that’s part of a calming of the waters on testing issues and of the state’s effort to listen to the concerns of educators and parents and making changes based on the feedback.”

NYS Allies for Public Education, which represents mostly parents and teachers who oppose the state’s standardized tests, found that the percentage of students who boycotted the ELA decreased slightly in 124 districts statewide. Ninety-seven districts were up, and five were unchanged.

High Achievement rounded off districts’ opt-out percentages to the nearest whole number. The Allies group did not round off numbers. One result was that High Achievement’s tallies showed a larger number of districts with results unchanged from the year before. Sigmund said his group chose to round off for the sake of clarity.

On Long Island alone, Newsday’s survey of English test opt-outs found higher boycott rates in 66 districts compared with results in 2016. The survey found lower rates in 30 districts than last year and unchanged numbers in five districts.

Lisa Rudley, a parent and founder of NYS Allies for Public Education who lives in Westchester County, noted that students’ test participation, in districts that have reported results, remained well below the 95 percent annual participation rate on state tests required by federal education law.

Since 2001, the federal law has required annual English and math testing of all public school students in grades three through eight, and also has stipulated that student test-participation rates be at least 95 percent.

Whether school districts could face penalties for noncompliance will remain unclear until the administration of President Donald Trump and individual states work out details for enforcing the latest version of the law, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act. The legislation was signed in December 2015 by President Barack Obama.

The continuing high level of boycotts shows that changes made by the state have failed to convince parents, Rudley said.

“Bottom line, despite the misleading campaign Elia ran to get districts to convince parents to have their kids take the tests, that number’s still very powerful,” Rudley said.

Burris was an administrator in the Rockville Centre district when the initial spate of opt-outs occurred in spring 2013 — the first year that the tests reflected the more rigorous Common Core curriculum.

That year, slightly more than 300 students in the South Shore system refused to take the ELA, district officials told Newsday at the time. On last month’s ELA, the district said the number topped 1,000 — 62.4 percent of those eligible to take the exam. That percentage has remained virtually the same since 2015.

“On Long Island, it truly is democracy in action,” Burris said last week. “So I do think that later on down the line the tests will be altered. I don’t think the opt-out movement is going to go anywhere until that happens.”

The region “in many ways is a very unique place. There are so many districts and so many small districts,” the veteran educator said. “Parents have an extraordinary ability to influence what’s happening in their children’s schools.”

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