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Newsday survey: Thousands of LI students "opt out" of state math exams

Parents of students at the Covert Elementary School

Parents of students at the Covert Elementary School in South Hempstead are frustrated with the emphasis schools place on the exams, so they are encouraging their children to refuse to be tested, like these students, pictured here on May 1, 2014. Credit: Uli Seit

Parents concerned about the frequency and validity of state tests have allowed thousands of children in grades three through eight to refuse math exams across Long Island this week.

A Newsday survey of more than half of the 124 public school districts in Nassau and Suffolk counties found that 10,765 children "opted out" of the exams -- about 1 out of 8 students in those districts.

The math tests, which reflect the controversial Common Core learning standards, began Wednesday and ended Friday. Placed before 1.2 million children statewide, the exams are more difficult than the ones used in years past. Most children failed the tests in 2013.

Rockville Centre, Seaford and Shoreham-Wading River had some of the highest opt-out rates -- each above 30 percent. That compares to Manhasset, Uniondale and East Hampton, where just 1 percent of students skipped the test.

"I think parents have had it with these state tests," said Rockville Centre Superintendent William Johnson. "They believe they need to be changed."

Roberta Gerold, superintendent of the Middle Country Central School District, said 26 percent of her students didn't take the math test. She's convinced the state "pushed the assessments into place about two years too early."

But in East Hampton, where only 4 students out of 665 opted out of the test, schools Superintendent Richard Burns was proud of the high turnout.

Preparation was key in getting the school community to embrace the new assessments and the push for more rigorous standards, he said.

"My gut feeling is I think the parents see that their children aren't freaking out because the teachers aren't freaking out," Burns said. "I would be hard-pressed to support our educational system where it is now. I don't like the fact that so many students are going to college and taking remedial courses, so let's raise the bar."

A printing error in the third grade math exam meant some questions were missing for about 100 districts throughout New York, including some on Long Island.

State education officials downplayed the error, which, for critics, fueled the notion that the tests were rolled out too soon.

"Many schools simply used a different form in place of the affected books," state Education Department spokesman Tom Dunn said. "Some schools printed the necessary items locally."

John B. King Jr., state education commissioner, said earlier this week that it's disappointing to see parents refusing to participate in state tests.

"If their children don't participate, they lose the opportunity to get good information about how their child is doing against a common benchmark across the state," he said. "And their child's teacher loses the opportunity to get that information."

The so-called "opt-out" movement started last spring and has spread through grassroots activism and social media.

More than 1 million students took the English Language Arts exam last month, officials said. A Newsday survey of half of all districts last month found that 9,000 opted out of that test.

Deborah Brooks, whose daughter is 9 and in the fourth grade in the Port Washington School District, said her child sat out the exams this year. The girl scored very well on last year's math tests, her mother said; she participated only because Brooks didn't know at the time that she could refuse.

Brooks said the test questions are ambiguous and convoluted, and that students have to "jump through hoops to get the answer." The tests should measure what students know, Brooks said, "not how crafty or wily they are."

She said parents would be outraged if similar questions appeared on routine classroom tests.

"If a teacher sent home a question that looked like that, we would be screaming bloody murder in the principal's office," said Brooks, an attorney.

With Michael R. Ebert


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