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Opt-out numbers on LI drop to 43%, down from peak of 50% in 2017

Fifth graders at Longwood Middle School in Middle

Fifth graders at Longwood Middle School in Middle Island take the New York state math test May 2, 2017. Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

The number of Long Island students boycotting state tests dropped substantially during the latest round of assessments — the first such decline since the opt-out movement started six years ago, a Newsday review has found.

Results show that a median 43% of students in Nassau and Suffolk counties declined to be tested in the spring — down from a peak of more than 50% in 2017, according to Newsday's inquiry. Local analysts attributed much of the drop to what they described as carrot-and-stick tactics employed by the state to make tests more attractive to parents and students, while also increasing pressures on districts to lower their opt-out rates. 

Opposition to state testing, both in this region and statewide, has been driven by a convergence of factors. These included the introduction of controversial Common Core academic standards in 2012, along with tougher student assessments and teacher job evaluations based on those standards.

While the region's boycott movement remains the largest in the state, declines recorded in the spring were widespread. More than 85% of the Island's 124 school districts reported opt-out numbers down from their peaks in past years, on tests covering English Language Arts and mathematics.

Spring testing involved more than 1 million students statewide in grades three through eight, including nearly 83,000 students on the Island. Assessments are required annually under federal law, which also calls for participation by at least 95% of students in each district.

Opt-out rates statewide, which are much lower than on the Island, fell in the spring to 16% — down from 18% in 2018, 19% in 2017 and 21% in 2016.

Test sponsors at the state Education Department in Albany, who have scrambled in recent years to make tests more palatable to the public, welcomed the lower rates. One major statewide change, enacted two years ago, shortened testing periods from three days to two. 

"What we're seeing in Long Island in regard to test refusals is consistent with what we are seeing statewide; test refusal numbers are down and that's a good thing," said Emily DeSantis, spokeswoman for the state Education Department. "The tests are a uniform, statewide measure of student achievement that provide real information for teachers, parents and districts about how children are doing academically where there may be a need for additional support."

On the Island, school leaders cautioned that opt-out rates would have to continue falling for another couple of years, before a definite downward trend could be confirmed. Nonetheless, the 2019 decline was widely viewed as a potential bellwether.

"My feeling is that the wave has passed through," said Lorna Lewis, superintendent of Plainview-Old Bethpage schools and immediate past president of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. 

Lewis referred to a wave of boycotts that first appeared on the Island in 2013, then exploded two years later, and that may now have begun to subside. Plainview-Old Bethpage's opt-put rate for English tests was 46.4% in the spring — down from 52.3% in 2018, 57.3% in 2017 and 60% in 2016.

To track test results, Newsday examined data showing the percentage of students declining to be tested in every district in Nassau and Suffolk counties over a four-year period, from 2016 to 2019. Newsday also calculated the region's median figures — the midpoint numbers between higher opt-out rates and lower rates for each year. 

As an illustration, the Islandwide test refusal rate on English tests fell to a median 43.1% in 2019 — down from 49.9% in 2018, 50.9% in 2017 and 49.8% in 2016.

Data for Newsday's analysis was provided by the state Education Department, as part of its annual reporting of test results statewide. Newsday collected its own figures as well, obtaining responses from 103 districts for English results and 95 districts for math. 

Many educators and parents protested at the start of the opt-out movement in 2012 that new tests and job ratings were rushed into place without adequate preparation, placing undue pressure on students and teachers.

In recent years, state education officials have taken a series of steps to win back public support — for example, by shortening tests and revamping Common Core, now renamed Next Generation standards. Revamped tests for grades three through eight, based on those standards, will be introduced in 2021.

New York State United Teachers, a statewide union umbrella group, contends the shortened exams still pack too many questions into each daily assessment period. The organization, which enrolls more than 600,000 active members and retirees, is pushing for changes in scoring and format that, it said, are needed to relieve student anxieties.

"We will not stop our campaign until the tests are corrected," said Jolene DiBrango, the union's executive vice president and a former sixth grade teacher from the Rochester area. 

Meanwhile, districts face mounting pressure to discourage opt-outs. In January, the education department released a new list of districts and individual schools failing to meet academic standards and, for the first time, the selection criteria took into account the number of students boycotting tests. 

Later that same month, state legislators made their own move to change testing policy — by abolishing a law requiring as much as 50% of job ratings of teachers and principals to be based on results of state exams. Under a new statute, local school districts will choose the tests to be used, in agreement with employee unions.

Charles Russo, superintendent of East Moriches schools, cited those changes as likely contributors to lowered anxieties over testing.  

"It seems here to be a somewhat less contentious issue than it has been in the past," said Russo, a past president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association. 

Jeanette Deutermann of Bellmore, lead organizer of the Long Island Opt Out movement, acknowledged the lower boycott numbers, adding that many younger parents were not as aware as older parents of the factors that sparked opt-outs in the first place. 

Deutermann went on to assert that both state authorities and some local districts are stepping up pressures on parents to support testing. 

"What we're up against is a massive campaign to stop families from opting out," Deutermann said.  

One example cited by Deutermann and other boycott leaders was a letter that the Southampton district sent to parents in advance of 2019 testing, urging participation. The letter went on to declare that students' performance in sixth and seventh grade testing would be used to determine placement in eighth grade Regents algebra courses — advanced programs considered academic plums by many families. 

Some parents objected. Within days, Southampton retracted and corrected its original statement, saying that participation in state tests would not be a major factor in making course placements, and that other criteria, including class grades and teachers' recommendations, would be employed.  

Falling opt-out numbers are hardly universal across the region. In East Islip, for example, rates for English testing hovered consistently between 72.6% and 73.5% for the past four years. 

Kat Lichter, a mother of two and longtime activist in East Islip's boycott movement, said she and her friends have worked hard over the years, speaking out at board meetings and urging younger parents to support the cause.

"I think that's one reason the numbers have gone down elsewhere, because new parents aren't as aware of the movement," Lichter said.

Trending student test boycott rates on Long Island

Median percentages of students in grades three through eight refusing to take state English Language Arts tests over the past four spring testing seasons.

2016: 49.8%

2017: 50.9%

2018: 49.9%

2019: 43.1%

Sources: State Education Department data collected from districts; Newsday calculations.

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