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Common Core opt-outs will persist on LI, superintendents warn

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia talks with Carle

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia talks with Carle Place superintendent David Flatley, left; Maureen Donohue-Whitley, superintendent of Western Suffolk BOCES; Regent Roger Tilles, back to camera at right; and other school officials at Carle Place Middle/High School in Carle Place on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2016. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Leading school superintendents on Long Island warned state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia in a face-to-face meeting Thursday that boycotts of Common Core tests will persist across the region as long as teachers and parents fear and mistrust an assessment system that has been under siege for nearly three years.

Several school chiefs praised Elia for pushing changes, such as shorter tests and revised Common Core academic standards, since taking over the state Education Department in July. They added, however, that a state law that eventually requires as much as 50 percent of teachers’ and principals’ job ratings to be based on student test scores remains a major obstacle to easing tensions.

“What’s still fueling the fires for the opt-out people is that that score is still resting on a teacher’s shoulders,” said William Johnson, superintendent of Rockville Centre schools and a former president of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. “That is a flash point.”

Elia reiterated a position she has taken while crisscrossing the state for months, fielding questions wherever she goes about the Common Core standards and the controversial tests and teacher evaluations tied to them.

“I know some of you probably don’t think we’ve done enough,” she told a dozen members of the Nassau County Council of School Superintendents executive board, who gathered in Carle Place, where she also met with teachers and district officials. “We’ve done a lot in eight months, and we’ll continue to do so at a fast pace. But it’s going to take time.”

The commissioner noted that New York State was the site of the biggest test boycott in the country in April, with more than 200,000 students in grades three through eight pulled out of state English and math tests by their parents. In Nassau and Suffolk counties, more than 60,000 students refused to take the tests.

Many boycotters have complained — and Elia has acknowledged — that the state rushed tougher new tests into place in 2013 without giving teachers adequate materials or the time to prepare themselves or their students for the changes. Boycott numbers have grown annually since then — and in April they exploded, with opt-outs on Long Island more than tripling the number in 2014.

One superintendent at Thursday morning’s meeting, Brian Conboy of Seaford, said the 64 percent student opt-out rate in his district was “embarrassing.”

“That’s not going to go away until the trust is restored,” Conboy added.

Elia responded that some superintendents elsewhere have told her they expect opt-out numbers to be lower during the next round of state tests for grades three through eight. Tests in English language arts are scheduled April 5-7, and exams in math are to be held April 13-15.

“We’re hopeful, but we’re doing the work that needs to be done,” the commissioner told Newsday.

Lisa Rudley, a Westchester County parent and statewide boycott leader, said in a phone interview later Thursday that it is difficult to predict boycott numbers at this point, because many parents wait until March or later to file opt-out forms with their districts.

“What I can tell you for sure is that it’s not going away,” said Rudley, a founding member of New York State Allies for Public Education, a coalition of parents, educators and others opposed to the testing and evaluation system.

In December, the state Board of Regents approved a four-year moratorium on using results of state tests in a manner that could jeopardize teachers’ careers or penalize students. Teachers still will receive annual scores for advisory purposes, however, and many opponents of the system believe that continues to put undue stress on teachers and students alike.

Allison White, a Port Washington parent and member of a local group affiliated with New York State Allies for Public Education, predicted that opt-out numbers will continue to grow.

“No one has said what’s going to happen at the end of the moratorium,” White said.

Elia on Thursday also toured classrooms in Carle Place, Center Moriches and East Moriches, and met with presidents of local teacher unions in Suffolk County.

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