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State: Test opt-outs dip slightly but Long Island still boycott stronghold

Nassau and Suffolk counties remain "the geographic area with the highest percentage of test refusals in both mathematics and ELA," the state Education Department said.

A fifth grader at Longwood Middle School takes

A fifth grader at Longwood Middle School takes the state math test in May. Photo Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

Long Island remains a stronghold of the test boycott movement, but the number of students opting out of exams statewide has dipped slightly, state officials announced Wednesday. 

Among students who took revamped tests in Nassau and Suffolk counties, 49.7 percent scored at the proficient level or better in English Language Arts and 52.1 percent did so in math, according to the state Education Department. As usual, those rates exceeded statewide averages of 45.2 percent and 44.5 percent, respectively. 

Agency officials said results could not be compared with those from prior years, because the format of last spring's tests was sharply revised in response to the boycott movement. 

State tests, mandated by federal law, have emerged as an explosive issue in New York, because student scores are linked to teachers' job evaluations. The state has temporarily suspended such evaluations, but the moratorium is due to expire in June 2019, and many educators and parents remain wary.  

During a telephone news conference Wednesday, state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia announced that the percentage of students in grades three through eight opting out of exams statewide last spring slipped to 18 percent, down from 19 percent in 2017 and 21 percent in 2016. The state in recent years has taken multiple steps to make the tests more appealing — most notably, by reducing total testing time from six days to four last spring. 

The commissioner added that the 1 percentage-point decline  in opt-outs, while it might appear small, meant that tens of thousands of additional students were sitting down to tests statewide. 

"We certainly have to say we're moving in the right direction," Elia declared, while acknowledging there remained room for improvement. "Nothing moves fast in the state of New York." 

Education officials provided no precise test-refusal figures for the Island as a region, but did note that Nassau and Suffolk counties remain "the geographic area with the highest percentage of test refusals in both mathematics and ELA."

Newsday's own surveys of Island districts last spring found average boycott rates of nearly 50 percent—results that appear to be borne out by the state's figures, which are collected district-by-district. Those numbers show that the median opt-out rate Islandwide essentially held steady between 2016 and 2018 at around 50 percent. 

The state's release of test results and opt-out rates from last spring drew a mixed response on the Island and statewide. 

"While Commissioner Elia celebrates a less than 1 percent decline  in opt-out numbers, parents statewide continue to send a very clear message: the state Education Department is missing the mark in its efforts to rebuild trust and in fixing a broken testing system," said Jeanette Deutermann, a parent in the North Bellmore district and organizer of Long Island Opt-Out, a regional network of parents and educators.

In contrast, Brian Fritsch, executive director of High Achievement New York, a Manhattan-based group representing business and civic organizations, described the latest state figures as signs of real progress in classrooms. 

"What's more, the state's recent reforms to the assessments, from shortening the assessment period to having New York teachers help write the actual tests, are working — with student proficiency levels improving and achievement gaps in communities of color improving," Fritsch stated.  

New York's opt-out movement has proved the biggest and most enduring in the nation. The movement first appeared on Long Island in 2013, then exploded statewide two years later, and has remained especially strong in Nassau and Suffolk, and in some suburbs of Westchester County and the Buffalo area. 

On the Island, more than 90,000 students in grades three through eight refused to take the state English Language Arts exam in April, representing nearly 50 percent of those eligible, according to a Newsday survey covering the great majority of the Island's 124 districts.  

Statewide, more than 210,000 of 1.1 million eligible pupils missed exams last spring.  

Two driving forces triggered the boycotts: tougher tests, coupled with a new statewide evaluation system for teachers based largely on students' scores. Parent opt-out leaders, joined by many school administrators and teacher-union representatives, argued that the system put too much pressure on students and faculties alike. 

Some parents also contend the annual tests in English and math are irrelevant. State rules ban use of the tests in deciding students' ranks and class placements. 

"At the end of the day, these are still pointless tests for these children," said Kimberly Velentzas, the mother of a seventh-grader and a leader in Glen Cove's opt-out network. "They were taken last April. How could these tests be used by children's teachers this year?" 

Velentzas said she plans to keep her son out of state testing in the spring, as she has in the past. Velentzas is a community liaison to the regional Long Island Opt-Out network, as well as PTA president at Robert M. Finley Middle School in Glen Cove. 

State education officials said preliminary data on test results was provided to all of New York's more than 700 districts in late August of this year, in a process that allows schools time to appeal any figures they regard as errors.

Wednesday's release of final data came later than usual — last year's report was made public on Aug. 22, 2017. Officials said the extra time was needed to recalculate results, because the format of last spring's tests was so different than previous exams. 

Many local school administrators contend that, however much time is spent refining data, the numbers are essentially useless for spotting trends and other analysis. This, they say, is because so many students are missing from the rolls. 

"They're not useful for us at all," said Roberta Gerold, superintendent of the Middle Country district in Brookhaven Town. "I wish we could get some use of out them, but the sample is too small."

A political showdown could be looming, as Washington authorities press New York to boost its test-participation rates. Federal law requires 95 percent of students in grades three through eight to be tested each year, and only a handful of schools on the Island meet that goal. 

New York State United Teachers, a statewide union group representing more than 600,000 professional educators and others, has called for severing the mandatory links between test scores and job ratings. Only then will confidence in the testing system among teachers and their supporters be restored, advocates said.

"It's very difficult to measure a teacher's impact by a single test score on a given day," said Patty Kolodnicki, a Levittown teacher and union delegate, who added that students' test performance can be affected by multiple factors beyond schools' control. "It can be something as simple as missing breakfast on a particular day, or as complex as living for years under the poverty line."

Still, the idea that teachers should not be judged by such measures ruffles the feelings of many taxpayers, who note that the federal government invests heavily in New York's public education, including $1.6 billion a year in Title I tutoring money. Such investments demand accountability, these critics say.

"If you're the New York State teachers union, and you don't want to play the game, then get out of the game and don't take the $1.6 billion," said Robert May, a Westbury resident and former postal supervisor now semi-retired.  

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