People cheer and hold signs during a rally against Common...

People cheer and hold signs during a rally against Common Core held at the Tilles Center in Brookville on March 9, 2015. Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

More than 1,000 teachers, parents and others cheered and applauded leaders of the anti-testing movement at a Long Island rally Monday night, shouting approval as speakers urged an expanded boycott of state tests in April.

Audience members booed as speakers blasted test advocates, such as U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, and cheered as it was announced that one rally organizer, Beth Cimino, president of a teachers union in the Comsewogue school district in Port Jefferson Station, would not participate in state testing this spring.

"Organize, mobilize and defend your public schools against attack," declared keynote speaker Diane Ravitch, a New York University education historian and former school official in the administration of President George H.W. Bush. "Take this message to the parents of Long Island: Don't allow your children to take these tests. Opt out."

That drew prolonged standing applause from the audience, some waving signs that said "Refuse the tests" or "Save the kids." Those who attended the two-hour event in the 2,200-seat auditorium of the Tilles Center for Performing Arts on the LIU Post campus in Brookville, while enthusiastic, fell short of the capacity crowd that some organizers had predicted.

Rally sponsors said public interest in standardized Common Core testing and the use of test scores to evaluate teachers' job performance has intensified since Cuomo in January proposed toughening evaluations and giving $20,000 bonuses to teachers rated "highly effective."

The governor, in a Newsday op-ed article Monday, wrote that his proposals are essential to shaking up what he described as an "entrenched" public education system.

"Changing our education system leads to disruption and misunderstanding," he said, "but also offers New York the opportunity to grow."

LI at center of 'rebellion'

Organizers of Monday night's event distributed free tickets via the Internet.

"Long Island is going to make history tonight," Ravitch said to raucous applause. She has described Long Island as "the epicenter of the test rebellion."

"Refuse the test," Ravitch said, prompting a standing ovation near the end of her speech. She called the act of opposition the best way to send a message, saying the tests are unacceptable and the preservation of quality public education the "civil-rights issue of our time."

"People are very upset by the governor's reluctance to listen, and his insistence on doing things his own way," said Sean Feeney, president of the Nassau County High School Principals Association and principal of The Wheatley School in Old Westbury.

Before the event began, Betsy Salemson of East Islip, a retired teacher, explained why she was there.

"I'm a fan of teachers teaching, and not being assessed on state tests," said Salemson, who is director of professional development for the Hofstra University School of Education.

Nanette Melkanian of Port Washington, a mother of three and a former special education teacher, said she was spurred nearly two years ago to help organize a local opt-out group.

"It's a contrived test system, with the purpose of creating fear that our public schools are failing," Melkanian said, adding that she believes the aim is to boost creation of charter schools.

Allison Noonan's 11-year-old, fifth-grade daughter is a special-needs student in the Northport-East Northport schools. She said she will have her daughter opt out of the tests this year.

"The state test for a typically developing student in fifth grade is a nine-hour exam" over three days, Noonan said. "For my daughter who is special needs, it's 18 hours. For me, that's a big issue."

The next round of standardized tests in English is scheduled for April 14-16 and in math for April 22-24.

Last spring, the number of students in grades 3-8 in Nassau and Suffolk counties taking the state English Language Arts test dropped by more than 28,000 from the year before.

The rally is jointly sponsored by New York Principals, a state group opposed to using test results to evaluate professional school workers, and by Allies for Public Education, another statewide umbrella organization that includes parents, teachers and others.

Debate on teacher ratings

One Cuomo proposal would boost the portion of teachers' evaluations that is based on state test scores from 20 percent to as much as 50 percent. The plan would apply to ratings of school principals as well. Teachers and principals with ratings of "ineffective" two years running could lose their jobs.

Union representatives have said any such move would subject teachers to complex numerical ratings that are statistically "unstable," in part because many teachers are being judged on the performance of small sample groups of students -- between 20 and 30 to a class, on average.

The governor and his aides have not directly addressed such criticisms, including some leveled by experts at the American Statistical Association, the world's largest organization of statisticians.

In Cuomo's article on Newsday's Opinion page, the governor acknowledged job evaluation systems are not easy to establish.

"There is no magic formula for the perfect teacher evaluation system," Cuomo wrote. "It is a work in progress that will be refined as time goes on."

Some of the debate over job ratings revolves around the question of whether districts dropped their standards too low in past years while negotiating the details of evaluation procedures with their unions. Such negotiations are required under state law.

More than 98 percent of Long Island teachers and principals rated "highly effective" or "effective" in evaluation figures for the 2013-14 school year released last month, up 1 percent from the year before. The percentage deemed "ineffective" dropped to 0.2 percent, down from 0.4 percent the previous year.

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