LI students, parents uneasy over more rigorous tests
New, more rigorous state tests that students will take this month could mean a dramatic drop in scores, with passage rates expected to plummet a third or more compared with last year, school officials warn.
The proportion of students likely to score at the "proficient" level in English and math tests for grades 3-8 could drop as low as 30 percent to 35 percent statewide, a recent state Education Department memo indicated.
Last year's proficiency rates, depending on subject and grade level, ranged from 50 percent to 69 percent statewide, and from 62 percent to 79 percent on Long Island.
Department spokesman Jonathan Burman said last week that passing rates are expected to fall, but that the agency has taken no official position on how steep a decline is likely.
New standards take effect
Testing is scheduled April 16 through 26 for more than 1.3 million students statewide, including 210,000 on the Island.
This year's test questions, for the first time, will be based on Common Core academic standards recommended in 2010 by the nation's governors and adopted by 45 states, including New York. The uniform standards have been pushed nationally by the Obama administration, which contends that tougher courses and testing will help students become "college- and career-ready."
Most Long Island educators approve of Common Core's emphasis on sophisticated English vocabulary and math-modeling skills. However, educators and parents complain that the state's standards-based testing is being pushed too fast and is likely to upset some schoolchildren.
School districts must notify parents of students' failures to reach proficiency levels on tests, and to advise that such students qualify for remedial tutoring.
Some parents protest
On the Island, many districts began buying revised textbooks and providing some lessons based on the Common Core in the 2011-12 academic year. Local teachers noted, however, that they cannot be certain their students are ready for the new tests.
"We're kind of preparing kids in the dark," said Caryl Lorandini, an eighth-grade teacher at Carle Place Middle School and treasurer of the Association of Mathematics Teachers of New York State. "Parents, if they don't understand the situation, will either be criticizing their kid or their teacher."
In North Bellmore, the mother of a fourth-grader, Jeanette Deutermann, has said her son will opt out of the state tests, and that at least 20 other families in the district will join the boycott.
"When our children come home with sample tests in their homework, even parents can't figure out what the answers should be -- it's ridiculous," Deutermann said. She added that she continues to like her school district and its teachers, but feels forced to act because her son cries at night over test-prep assignments.
Deutermann is part of a statewide "Opt Out" movement that claims thousands of adherents, including many in New York City and the Buffalo area.
The state Education Department, in a January memo, reiterated its position that, with limited exceptions, "there is no provision in statute or regulation allowing parents to opt their children out of state tests." To the contrary, state regulations require all students in public schools to take all appropriate assessments, officials have said.
The state leaves to local districts the question of how to handle student absences. Some local school administrators have indicated that students are not likely to be penalized for noncompliance. Any school where student test participation drops below 95 percent can be flagged by the state and required to draft improvement plans, officials said.
Arnold Goldstein, the North Bellmore schools chief, said he has received letters from eight parents stating their children will not participate in the upcoming tests.
"It is the parents' prerogative to refuse to allow their children to take the tests," he said. "We're not going to violate that, obviously. But we will do all we can to make sure children are comfortable, and that they're not caught in the middle between the state and the parents' wishes."
Lower scores expected
At PTA meetings, some parents have gasped at the difficulty of sample test questions taken from a state website. For example, a third-grade reading passage, based on a tale by Russian author Leo Tolstoy, includes vocabulary and definitions for such words as "caftan" (an ankle-length shirt with long sleeves), "hoarfrost" (frost) and "granary" (a storehouse for grain).
Such passages reflect a key principle of Common Core standards -- that literary readings be authentic, not watered-down or abridged versions of classic works. Applying that principle to testing requires use of more difficult passages, state officials said.
The Common Core also sets more rigorous standards in math, requiring, for example, that students solve more "real world" problems using mathematical modeling.
Kenneth Slentz, the state's deputy commissioner for elementary and secondary education, alerted local districts last month of the impact the new tests could have on passage rates.
Slentz, in a memo posted on a state website, said passage rates for students in grades 3-8 likely would mirror the percentages of older students who meet the state's "aspirational" targets on Regents exams in English and math. Those percentages were 34.7 percent statewide and 49.7 percent on the Island in 2011, the latest year available.
Slentz contended that the change in passage rates will present a more "transparent and honest" picture of students' preparation for college and the workplace.
"When our educational system fails to prepare so many of our children for success in college and their careers, we are all accountable," the deputy commissioner wrote. "Reform cannot be delayed."
Slentz was out of the office last week and unavailable for comment.
A half-dozen Island school administrators and teacher representatives interviewed by Newsday last week all quoted Slentz and other top state education officials as saying at recent meetings that test passage rates were expected to drop at least 30 percent. Some think the decline could cut even deeper, though results won't be known until the state compiles student answers and sets final cutoff scores.
Richard Iannuzzi, president of the 600,000-member New York State United Teachers union, said in a phone interview that he takes Slentz's memo to mean that passage rates could drop by half. Any such result would be unfair to many teachers and students, the state union chief contended, because the state has not yet provided local districts with all the curriculum guides needed to prepare for tests, and because preparation levels vary widely from district to district.
"Many students are going to be exposed to a level of testing and a style of testing that doesn't reflect their instruction, and their grades will drop through no fault of their own or their teachers," said Iannuzzi, a former Central Islip teacher.