Students at Southside Middle School prepare to start their Common...

Students at Southside Middle School prepare to start their Common Core mathematics testing in Rockville Center, April 24, 2015. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

An estimated 200,000 students in grades three through eight across New York refused to take Common Core tests in the spring, State Education Department officials confirmed Wednesday. Passing rates rose modestly among the roughly 900,000 students who took the exams, which are among the nation's toughest.

Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, in a news conference, conceded the high numbers of students opting out of standardized tests certainly had an impact on the results, but added it was not possible to pinpoint the exact effect.

Elia noted that analysis showed a disproportionate number of students who refused to take English and math tests in April had scored low the year before.

"There is no question that when you have approximately 20 percent not taking the test, it does affect that," said the commissioner, who took over the state leadership post on July 1. "Changing standards, as great as I think it is, is not going to happen overnight. It takes time."

Parent leaders of the test-boycott movement said they seek change of a different sort -- an end to state regulations linking student test scores to teacher job evaluations. Parents have contended the system creates unnecessary stress for children and teachers alike.

"It's very clear that parents won't participate in the testing program until things are fixed for real," said Jeanette Deutermann, a North Bellmore parent of two and founder of Long Island Opt-Out, a regional grassroots group that has spearheaded the movement.

The Education Department yesterday did not report regional opt-out rates, but did issue district-by-district figures that confirmed the heavy number of refusals across Nassau and Suffolk counties.

Some academic experts said the decline in the number of students taking state tests could weaken public confidence in the exams' validity.

Stats and psychologyAaron Pallas, a research professor at Columbia University Teachers College, said the problem is partly statistical, partly psychological.

"The broader issue, I think, is that when 20 percent of the kids aren't taking the tests, with upwards of 60 to 70 percent in some districts, the parents and taxpayers may wonder, 'What do those tests mean?' " said Pallas, who has frequently criticized the use of test scores in evaluating teachers.

The boycott of English and math standardized tests was the biggest in the nation, experts have said. It was the largest incidence of student opt-outs since national Common Core academic standards were imposed in statewide testing two years ago.

Test score results released Wednesday showed that in English, the percentage of students scoring at the "proficient" level inched up to 31.3 percent statewide in 2015, compared with 30.6 percent in 2014 and 31.1 percent in 2013. In math, percentages rose to 38.1 percent in 2015, from 36.2 percent in 2014 and 31.1 percent in 2013.

Progress for black and Hispanic students held steady statewide in 2015, though those students on average still faced a "significant achievement gap," the Education Department reported.

Long Island results from the latest round of annual testing in grades three through eight followed a similar pattern, according to the department.

In Nassau County, for example, the percentage of students scoring "proficient" in English edged up to 43 percent in 2015, compared with 42 percent in 2014 and 44 percent in 2013. Suffolk rates went to 33 percent in 2015, from 32 percent in 2014 and 36 percent in 2013.

Newsday's reporting in April found that more than 46 percent of eligible students on the Island refused to take state tests -- far higher than the state average.

In English testing, for example, 79 percent of students opted out in the Comsewogue district that serves the Port Jefferson Station area. Seventy-five percent of students skipped testing in Plainedge, 68 percent in Connetquot, 67 percent in Eastport-South Manor and 66 percent in Middle Country.

Meeting Albany's test-proficiency standards, established in 2013, is no easy task.

New York ranks either at the top or near the top among all 50 states in the cutoff scores it sets for passing standardized tests in English and math, according to a study issued in July by the National Center for Educational Statistics, a research arm of the U.S. Education Department.

Some experts question whether this is a good thing. Diane Ravitch, a New York University researcher and former U.S. assistant secretary of education, has compared the standard to an A grade that is "unreasonably high" for a great many students.

New York State, in adopting this yardstick, deliberately aligned its requirements with those used by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, a federal testing agency.

The idea was to compare student performance in New York against a mark that was lofty and unchanging -- the same approach used in Massachusetts, where student achievement is rated the highest in the country.

"Look, NAEP's the gold standard for career and college readiness," said Steve Sigmund, executive director of High Achievement New York, a Manhattan-based nonprofit advocacy group that supports Common Core curriculum guidelines. "So I think the fact that New York is the state that comes closest to this standard is the way to go."

The federal No Child Left Behind law requires that at least 95 percent of eligible students participate each year in state English and math testing. School districts and states that fall short of that requirement face potential penalties, ranging from tighter federal scrutiny of their testing procedures to losses of school financial aid.

Funds could be in jeopardy

The biggest U.S. school-aid program, known as Title I, provides New York State with about $1.1 billion annually, including $45 million for Nassau and Suffolk counties. Much of that aid is targeted to students in low-income communities.

Elia, during the news conference, said that federal authorities had the power to withhold aid money, but added that she did not know whether they are considering it. She said her agency soon would announce a plan for boosting test participation.

Federal authorities have suggested recently that it would be New York State's responsibility to decide what action, if any, to take in districts where student participation dropped below 95 percent.

Dorie Turner Nolt, press secretary for the U.S. Department of Education, issued a statement before Wednesday's release of test scores, expressing confidence that the State Education Department would "take the appropriate steps" to make sure students were tested.

With Michael R. Ebert

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