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NY education commissioner urges LI superintendents to counter Common Core opt-out movement

New York State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia is

New York State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia is show during an interview at Newsday on Thursday, Aug. 27, 2015. Photo Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

Long Island school superintendents are being enlisted by the state's top education leader to bring back students for Common Core testing -- no easy task in a region dubbed the epicenter of the nation's biggest test boycott.

Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, who took office July 1, has crisscrossed the state in recent weeks, promising numerous, though limited, steps to ease anxieties among educators, parents and students upset over rapid changes in curriculum, testing and teacher job evaluations.

On Thursday, Elia, a Buffalo area native, paid her first visit to the Island, before class openings that begin Tuesday in some of the 124 districts across Nassau and Suffolk counties. The commissioner met with about 20 school superintendents in Huntington Station, and earlier outlined the state's plans to a receptive but somewhat skeptical group of about 50 school administrators, teachers and others in Melville.

Elia, a former superintendent in the Tampa, Florida, area, has focused much of her attention on local school chiefs during her two months in office.

The commissioner has chided local administrators who supported parents pulling their children out of tests in English language arts and math, while urging administrators to remind parents that annual testing is required by federal law. She pledged to come up with more specific plans for superintendents next month.

"In New York State, we have to calm the waters," Elia told Newsday editors and reporters during a meeting at the newspaper's Melville headquarters. "There has to be an understanding that all this cannot change overnight."

Teachers will be given a larger role in drafting test questions for grades three through eight, the commissioner said, though the new assessments won't become available until spring 2017.

Common Core curriculum standards will be reviewed under a new law approved in June, as they already have been in states such as Tennessee and Kentucky, Elia added. Such reviews generally have produced minor tweaks in curriculum, mostly in the early grades.

Whether those measures will be enough to reverse the boycott tide's momentum is an open question -- one that Elia acknowledged.

"As commissioner, there are some things I don't control," she said during the meeting at Newsday. "I don't control the writing of laws in New York State."

Opt-out movement's growth

Over the past three years, the number of students refusing to be tested on the Island has grown from several hundred to more than 70,000 -- or 44 percent of eligible students -- in April, according to Newsday's examination.

That was by far the greatest concentration of opt-outs for any region of the state.

Federal law allows withholding of financial aid from districts where student test participation drops below 95 percent. U.S. education officials said this week they had reached no final decision on how to deal with New York State, but it appeared districts will lose no money in the near future.

"It's not going to happen this year -- I can tell you that," Elia told Newsday.

Organizers of the boycott movement are largely middle-class mothers, supported by many teacher unions, principals, superintendents and other members of the academic community. Joan Ripley, an assistant superintendent of Farmingdale schools, reminded Elia of the parent factor during Thursday's conference at the Huntington Hilton.

"We have parents downloading the [test] questions, saying 'How can you say this is a fair question?' " Ripley said.

Suffolk ranked first among the state's counties in the number of students skipping the state's Common Core math tests in grades three through eight, and second in percentage, Newsday's analysis found. More than 40,000 of the county's students refused to take that test. Upstate Herkimer County, with less than 5,000 students expected to take the exams, was first in test refusals on a percentage basis.

Nassau ranked second in the number of students opting out of the math test and 17th in percentage. More than 30,000 students refused to take that test.

Suburban, middle-class lead

Newsday's examination compared student opt-out rates in all of the state's 57 counties outside of New York City, as well as within the city. Analysis found the boycott movement to be widespread, but predominantly suburban and middle-class, both downstate and upstate.

Statewide, more than 200,000 students, or about one in every five, were pulled out of state tests by parents, according to state estimates. The New York boycott was larger than that of any other state, and more than triple the number of New York students who opted out of tests in spring 2014.

Leaders of the opt-out movement, who recently met for an hour with Elia in Albany, have insisted they will continue organizing for next spring's exams until the state meets their demands.

One of the movement's primary goals is suspension of a state law that raised the share of teachers' and principals' annual job evaluations based on student test scores to a maximum 50 percent. That was pushed through the legislature April 1 by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who called the previous year's evaluations "baloney," citing the small number of teachers rated "ineffective."

Diane Ravitch, a New York University researcher and former federal education official who opposes Common Core, has said the state should not to be surprised if next April's round of testing produces 400,000 opt-outs. Other opponents of the state's standardized testing have applauded the revolt on Long Island and elsewhere as a justified protest against a system they say was poorly conceived and hastily implemented and is statistically flawed.

"The excellent opt-out organizing on Long Island has made it a national focal point for assessment reformers," said Bob Schaeffer, public education director for FairTest, a Boston-based advocacy group. "The folks who put together Long Island Opt Out, led by parents, have helped spread the message to other parts of the state."

The FairTest leader grew up in Miller Place in the 1950s and '60s, and he said he was startled by the 64 percent opt-out rate reported by the state for that district.

"I know the geography, and I was shocked," Schaeffer said. "Miller Place was never a radical, troublemaking place."

LI had 32% of state refusals

The state Education Department earlier this month released test-refusal percentages for individual school districts, but not for counties or regions.

Newsday's estimates of regional and countywide rates were based on a formula that drew on two sets of Education Department data: the number of students tested in grades three through eight, and the percentages of students whose parents or guardians signed test-refusal forms.

Fred Cohen of Massapequa, a former deputy superintendent for the Bellmore-Merrick school district, reviewed Newsday's methodology and concluded that it was valid for approximating the percentage of test refusals by county. Cohen currently is a data analyst working with local districts.

Together, Nassau and Suffolk counties, with about 16 percent of the state's enrollment, produced more than 32 percent of all test refusals, Newsday's analysis found. Refusal numbers also ran high in the suburbs of Buffalo and Rochester.

However, the boycotts were widespread throughout the state. For example, more than 40 percent of students opted out in Franklin County, which abuts the Canadian border, as well as in the Cooperstown and Utica-Rome areas of north-central New York.

'Parents band together'

Analysts cited a combination of factors for the Island's emergence as a hotbed of anti-testing sentiment. Those included interactions between parents and teachers in middle-class districts, where homes often represent families' biggest investments and where introduction of more rigorous Common Core standards and plunging tests scores have come as a particular shock.

"These are districts where parents are more knowledgeable about what's going on, and where they advocate," said GiGi Guiliano, a 12-year PTA volunteer in East Islip whose two younger sons have opted out of state tests. "These are districts where parents band together. We have social-media groups, like on Facebook, and we also have administrators and boards of education who are supportive."

Guiliano had a message for Elia.

"Welcome to New York, Commissioner Elia," Guiliano said. "You are in for a wild ride."


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