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Back-to-school means state math test for grades 3-8

Educators and opt-out activists expect large numbers of exam boycotts on Long Island. Meanwhile, state Education Department officials give reassurances that computer-based tests will go smoothly.

Districts giving the computer-based math test in at

Districts giving the computer-based math test in at least some grades have set two consecutive days from Tuesday through May 7. For the paper-based test, districts have chosen two consecutive days from Wednesday through Friday. Photo Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

Spring break is over, and for students in elementary and middle schools across Long Island, it's not just back to the books.

This week and a portion of next week are defined in part by the state math test — the decision to take the exam, boycott it, or in some cases bypass it for Regents geometry or algebra assessments given in June.

Local educators, as well as leaders of the test boycott movement, expect another round of sweeping test refusals in the 124 school systems across Nassau and Suffolk counties. Last year, at least 67,553 students on the Island refused to take the math exam in 94 districts that responded to a Newsday survey — 46.9 percent of pupils eligible in those systems.

As always, the math test comes a few weeks after administration of the English Language Arts exam. More than 75,000 of the Island's students in grades three through eight opted out of that test, about 47.2 percent of eligible students in 103 systems answering the newspaper's questions on participation.

Districts giving the computer-based math test in at least some grades have set two consecutive days in the state-designated time frame of Tuesday through May 7. For the traditional paper-and-pencil test, districts have chosen two consecutive days from Wednesday through Friday.

"There is a little bit of a stalemate that has happened," said Jeanette Deutermann, lead organizer of the LI Opt Out movement. "Yes, we are complying with the federal government that children in grades three to eight get standardized testing. But within that parameter, the state can comply with the federal government and not harm children. Tests don't have to be four days long … and we could also look toward alternative assessments."

The number of students who take the math test is significantly lower than for the ELA because districts can waive the math exam for seventh- and eighth-graders taking accelerated math. Those students take the Regents Geometry or Regents Algebra I exam given later.

The math exams also come at a time when the testing vendor, Questar Assessments Inc., has faced increasing scrutiny because of a technical glitch that force temporary statewide suspension of the computer-based ELA test. The state Education Department had to extend the testing period for districts that had committed to giving the electronic version.

Department spokeswoman Emily DeSantis, in a statement, said more than 184,000 students statewide completed the computer-based ELA exams and "the Department is prepared to work side by side with schools throughout math CBT to ensure successful test sessions for our students."

"We regret the hardship these difficulties placed on school communities," DeSantis said. "We are holding Questar accountable for its failure to deliver the services required in our contract with them."

About one-quarter of districts on the Island had scheduled digital ELA testing in at least some grades, and most were affected by the technical troubles. The state said database servers for Questar broke down under heavy usage.

The fallout has affected the number of schools giving the computer-based math test, or CBTs.

Statewide, 53 schools in 31 districts that initially registered to give the digital state math test in at least some grades decided to give the paper-based exam instead. That includes the Baldwin, Franklin Square, Oceanside and Westhampton Beach districts, according to the Education Department.

"We've decided to stick with the tried-and-true until the kinks are worked out," said a spokeswoman for the Oceanside district.

About 730 schools remain registered to administer the math assessments via computer, including some in about 20 districts on Long Island, according to figures from the state.

Brad Baumgartner, Questar Assessment's chief operating officer, said in a statement, "During the English Language Arts testing window, Questar made adjustments which will help ensure a positive testing experience for the upcoming online Math testing window."

Leaders of the test-refusal movement expect that the glitches will prompt more parents to refuse the exams. Those opposed to the tests say they do not accurately measure student achievement and are not developmentally appropriate, and that the tests and preparation for them take up too much class time.

The boycott movement that began with small numbers in spring 2013 and mushroomed to tens of thousands of students annually since the 2015 test seaon has revealed distinct patterns: Some districts repeatedly have very high opt-out rates, while others show rates of under 20 percent.

Districts including Comsewogue, Patchogue-Medford, Rocky Point and Shoreham-Wading River have registered refusal rates of near or above 70 percent. Meanwhile, opt-outs in systems such as Cold Spring Harbor,  Elmont, Great Neck, Jericho, Roosevelt and Wyandanch, have been below 20 percent. 

In Wyandanch, more than 95 percent of students took the ELA in early April. School leaders recently held a "test pep rally" for middle school students in the gymnasium at Wyandanch Memorial High School, complete with a deejay, snacks and games. The event for grades six through eight was held in anticipation of the math exams; a similar rally was held before the ELA test was given.

Parent Shatisha Haywood-Smith, who has six children in the district and serves as president of the PTA at the middle school, said the exams provide a window into what students need.

"It shows us where our school is and what we need to do better and where we need to improve," she said. 

Several other school districts with high test participation that also have track records of high academic achievement declined to comment. Those included Jericho, Cold Spring Harbor, Manhasset, Herricks and Port Washington.

Hofstra University education professor Alan Singer, who has closely followed the issue, said the boycott movement is strong in middle-class districts, with parents believing the testing regimen has distorted education for their children.

"What I see is that in some districts the movement is much weaker and there are multiple factors," he said. Affluent parents often pay for test prep for college-entrance exams and "they want their kids tested."

"In poor communities, such as Roosevelt and Wyandanch, I think there is a fear that their children will be left behind and they are afraid to pull their kids out," Singer said. In addition, "these communities have a large number of immigrant parents and they are afraid to pull out of tests. They don’t want to attract attention."

Each year, more than 1.1 million students across New York in grades three through eight are eligible to sit for the ELA and math exams, which are required by federal law. About 200,000 of those are in the Island's schools.

The statewide test-refusal average last year was 18 percent, according to the state Education Department.

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