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More than half of Long Island's students opt out of English Language Arts testing

The English Language Arts tests.

The English Language Arts tests. Credit: Barry Sloan

More than half of students across 61 Long Island school districts in grades 3-8 opted out of taking the English Language Arts exams, a Newsday survey found.

According to data collected from the districts, 52.5% — or 43,723 children — declined to take the ELA exams, which wrapped up at the end of April. Prior years have drawn large boycotts of these assessments, with some parents and educators saying the tests do not accurately measure student achievement.

Of the districts — there are 124 on Long Island — that responded to Newsday, 47% of students in Nassau did not take the exams, and 55.7% in Suffolk. In 2019, more than 47% of Long Island students refused to take the exams, according to data gathered at the end of the exam period by Newsday from 103 of the 124 districts in Nassau and Suffolk counties. There were no tests in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

This year, the tests were different on several levels: They were shorter, the state did not want to give the exams but had to in accordance with U.S. Department of Education requirements, and remote learners did not take the exams at home but were not required to come to school for the test.

"Participation was very low, and as a result of that no one is really going to be using the results to make programmatic decisions," said Bill Heidenreich, president of the Nassau County Council of School Superintendents. "Logistically, we administered the exam because federal law requires that we do so, but we have assessment results that we really don't know what to do with."

The ELA tests were held during a nine-day window that ended April 29. The mathematics portion of the tests started May 3 and end Friday.

Overall, 83,247 students were eligible for the ELA tests. Some districts, including South Country and Patchogue-Medford, reported that more than 95% of eligible students did not take the exams.

"This matches other years," said Jeanette Deutermann, a Bellmore parent and leader of the Long Island Opt Out group. She noted that school districts that were transparent with parents about the exams saw higher numbers of students refusing the assessments.

"Some districts were very honest in saying there is no purpose for the test this year and parents understood what the situation was," she added. "If the district did not make that clear … you saw a higher rate of kids taking it."

The tests were canceled last spring after the state was granted a waiver by the U.S. Department of Education. This year, the federal government insisted that New York and other states conduct them, denying the state Department of Education the waiver it had sought.

In seeking the waiver for 2021, the state said the tests would not be useful to fairly assess an individual or school district’s progress, given the disruptions of the year and the many students studying remotely.

The state had determined it would not offer the tests remotely or require remote students to take the in-person tests, but remote learners could come to the school to take it if they desired. The state shortened the tests — taking place over one day rather than two in each session — and schools faced no consequences or penalties for low participation rates. Federal aid distribution is not tied to test results.

Educators said the test contained only about two dozen questions. And, some questions on the exams had been used in prior years as well as in practice exams that were familiar to students. State Education Department officials confirmed that some of the same questions are being used in the math assessments now underway.

"This year I do sense that there is a notion with parents who are thinking that my children are undergoing so much stress with masks, social distancing and the way classrooms are set up … and there are so many things the students are dealing with — that parents are saying, 'Why add another stressor?' " said Eileen Annino, K-6 Literary chairperson in the Plainview-Old Bethpage district. "This year, there is a feeling of exhaustion."

Before administration of the exams, the state surveyed all districts about their local approaches to student assessments and found "that schools are already assessing students and sharing information with the school community during this extraordinary time," Annino said.

This year, some parents were aware that the state Education Department had applied for a waiver from the exams, she said.

In Plainview-Old Bethpage, about 55% of students did not take the exams, according to the survey.

Heidenreich, superintendent of the Valley Stream Central High School District, which includes grades seven and eight, agrees with Annino. His district has other ways to measure progress, he said.

"It’s a little bit more challenging when you have some students who are in-person and some who are remote learning, but we have a lot of information from our teachers and classroom assessments and other types of assessments, so we can see how well our students are doing," he said.

Kat Lichter, an Islip Terrace parent who has opted her two children out of the exams in the East Islip district in prior years, said the tests do not accurately reflect academic progress and are a "complete waste of time." Her son is in college, but her daughter, a high school junior, is eligible to take the state Regents in June, and will not be sitting for them.

Regents exams, which are given near the end of the school year, won’t be required for class credit or graduation, with only four of them offered this year at all, in biology, earth science, algebra and ELA.

"I feel the same way about the Regents that I do about the state testing. These kids have not had a full year of instruction that could adequately prepare them for something like this," Lichter said.

Advocates of testing, such as the New York Equity Coalition of civil rights, education, parent, and business groups, said assessment data is "vital to understand what the academic impacts of the pandemic have been."

"State assessments are our best tool to ensure that every student is counted — especially students who our education system has failed to engage during the pandemic," according to the coalition, which includes the nonprofit equity group The Education Trust-New York.

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