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Opt-outs cut broad swath across Long Island school districts

These seventh-graders at John F. Kennedy Middle School

These seventh-graders at John F. Kennedy Middle School in Port Jefferson Station, in the Comsewogue district, opted out of the state math test and spent the time reading or doing homework. This picture was taken on Wednesday, April 13, 2016, the first of three days the exam was given. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

This story was reported by Michael R. Ebert, Candice Ferrette, Víctor Manuel Ramos, Joie Tyrrell and Olivia Winslow. It was written by Tyrrell.

Nearly 88,000 students in grades three through eight opted out of the state Common Core math test this week in Long Island school districts that responded to a Newsday survey, meaning that more than half of those eligible among those systems refused to take the exam.

Boycotts of the math test and the English language arts test given April 5-7 cut a broader swath across the Island’s 124 districts than in spring 2015 — when the activist movement across New York gave birth to the largest such grass-roots action in the nation — the newspaper’s surveys showed.

On Friday, the third and final day the math test was given, 87,796 students in 106 school systems in Nassau and Suffolk counties, or 52.8 percent of those eligible, refused to take the exam, according to figures from the districts.

Last year, Newsday’s survey on the final day of the math test showed more than 66,000 students in 99 districts on the Island — 46.5 percent of those eligible — boycotted the exam.

Even without all systems reporting figures, “the number of refusals on Long Island has far surpassed our expectations,” said Jeanette Deutermann, the North Bellmore parent who founded the Long Island Opt Out group. “These refusals are a clear sign of the escalating dissent and the demand by parents to pull back on these corporate reforms invading our classrooms.”

The percentage of students in Kings Park who refused to take the math test rose by 9 points, compared with last year, and percentage of those opting out of the English language arts exam, or ELA, increased by 12 points, according to district figures.

“If you were to ask me about a month ago what my prediction would have been for testing this year, I would have predicted less refusals,” Kings Park Superintendent Timothy Eagen said. “So why then did the number of refusals in our region climb for this year? While I do not claim to have the answer to this question, it is my hope that Albany takes note of the loud voice of the majority, carefully listens to this voice, and enacts meaningful change.”

Jonathan Burman, a spokesman for the state Education Department, and Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said, “We continue our efforts to inform the public about the improvements we’ve made to the tests and the important role they can play in improving instruction. And we are committed to making the tests even better as we move forward.”

This is the fourth consecutive year of test refusals linked to state-driven education reforms. Last spring, the opt-out numbers mushroomed, and an estimated 200,000 students statewide in grades three through eight — with about 35 percent of those on the Island — refused to take the English and math tests.

Since then, in response to controversy and public outcry, the state lessened the number of test questions and established a four-year moratorium that means scores cannot be used punitively against students or teachers, whose performance evaluations are by law linked to the results. In addition, the exams now are untimed.

Michael J. Hynes, superintendent of the Patchogue-Medford district and an activist with the opt-out movement, said the state’s changes have fallen short.

“As for the increase in opt-out numbers this year, this better be a ‘smelling salt’ that wakes the state Education Department up from unconsciousness,” Hynes said. “The parents are saying, ‘What you are doing as far as change . . . it’s not close to being enough.’ ”

The Education Department does not release figures on test refusals during the exams’ administration. After last spring’s tests, the agency for the first time released data — test-refusal percentages for the ELA and math exams, by district, in August.

On the math test, there is a significant difference in the number of students in grades three through eight who take the exam, as compared with the ELA. Seventh- and eighth-graders in accelerated math classes can choose to waive the eighth-grade math test if they are taking the Regents algebra or Regents geometry exam later in the school year.

Newsday’s survey Friday showed refusals ranging from highs of 86 percent in the Comsewogue district and 81.9 percent in the Rocky Point system, to less than 15 percent in districts such as Elmont, Central Islip and Roosevelt.

Port Jefferson Station parent Alexandra Gordon, who opted her seventh-grade daughter out of both exams in the Comsewogue district, said she hopes the act “will be in combination with the tens of thousands of other children, a signal to our elected representatives that we are not going to take just little crumbs of change.”

Last week, more than half of eligible Long Island students in grades three through eight boycotted the ELA exam, a Newsday survey that drew replies from 108 districts showed.

On that test, a Newsday analysis of 100 districts that responded both this year and in 2015 showed the number of refusals jumped about 9 percentage points.

A handful, such as Southampton, Southold and Central Islip, reported slight declines in refusals on that test this year over last year, while increases in other districts ranged from very small amounts to more than 30 percentage points.

The analysis showed significantly more refusals in Westbury, considered by the state to be a high-needs district. This year, more than 31 percent of students in that Nassau district boycotted the ELA exam, compared with 3.2 percent in spring 2015.

Opt-out organizers held a community forum there March 30 that drew a large crowd, and school board President Pless Dickerson attributed the jump in test refusals to increased awareness.

“More parents became informed about it . . . and I think in general, the media has talked a lot about the opt-outs and people have become more informed and decided they would go along with it,” Dickerson said. “They believe in the fact that kids are being tested too much.”

Parents in the opt-out movement say the exams are harmful and have age-inappropriate questions, that extensive test-prep time detracts from instruction in other subjects, and that the assessments put undue pressure on students and teachers.

However, David Flatley, superintendent of the Carle Place district, said he supports the exams. His children are older, but he would have had them take the test if they were eligible.

“I think about them about the same way like a pediatrician taking blood pressure,” he said. “No one blood pressure measurement defines the health of my child, but over time those data points, along with others, help me get a very good picture of my children’s health — and I think similarly about the kinds of tests we do in school.”

Levittown parent Paul Manton’s fourth-grade daughter took the exams in the Island Trees district despite some reservations he has about standardized testing.

“I want my daughter to get accustomed to taking tests,” he said. “If you want to become a lawyer, you don’t opt out of the bar exam. If you want to become a doctor, you don’t opt out of the MCATs.”

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