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Long IslandEducation

Schools chiefs to feds: Common Core opt-outs could cost LI schools $200M

Empty seats in an eighth-grade classroom at Valley

Empty seats in an eighth-grade classroom at Valley Stream Memorial Junior High School, where students opted out of taking the English language arts test on April 16, 2015. Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Boycotts of Common Core tests could cost Long Island’s public schools more than $200 million in federal and state financial aid if Washington imposes penalties for low student test-participation rates, key superintendents in Nassau and Suffolk counties say in a letter to acting U.S. Education Secretary John B. King Jr.

The Island’s school leaders joined colleagues in the Lower Hudson Valley to warn King of “tremendous impact” on their districts should test refusals in April equal or surpass those of last spring. King was state education commissioner in New York before moving to the federal agency early last year.

The superintendents, representing a total of 192 school districts and nearly 700,000 students, contend that withholding of aid could impede state and local efforts to improve the testing system. State links between the exams and teacher evaluations have sparked widespread protests from parents and educators, and the nation’s largest-ever student test boycotts.

Estimated potential aid losses are $123 million in Suffolk, $86 million in Nassau and $140 million for four counties in the Lower Hudson Valley, the letter says.

It is signed by Lorna Lewis, superintendent of Plainview-Old Bethpage schools, and Susan Schnebel, the superintendent in the Islip district. Lewis is president of the Nassau County Council of School Superintendents; Schnebel presides over the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association.

A third signer is Mary Fox-Alter, superintendent of Pleasantville schools in Westchester County and president of the Lower Hudson Council of School Superintendents. That group represents administrators in Westchester, Rockland, Dutchess and Putnam counties.

Student opt-out rates on Common Core state tests last spring averaged 43 percent in Suffolk County and 36 percent in Nassau — among the highest figures in the state. The highest refusal rate in an individual district was 79 percent; the lowest was zero.

A long-standing federal law, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, requires a student participation rate of at least 95 percent in annual state testing mandated by the U.S. Education Department. The law was amended in December to address local and state concerns over federal mandates covering testing and the tying of exam results to teacher evaluations, but the 95 percent participation rule remains in place.

The federal department notified states the same month that it might take action — including financial penalties — when percentages of students taking required tests fall below the 95 percent benchmark.

District-by-district figures released by the superintendents Friday showed that some of the lowest opt-out rates were in school systems with the largest numbers of impoverished students — for example, 7 percent in Roosevelt and 11 percent in Wyandanch. Such districts are the most dependent on federal and state financial support.

“The districts that have the most to lose are the ones least responsible for opt-outs,” Lewis said Friday.

In a response Friday evening, Jo Ann Webb, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Education Department, cited the agency’s earlier letters to New York and other states warning of potential penalties, including reduced aid.

Jeanette Deutermann of North Bellmore, a former teacher and parent who founded the LI Opt-Out, a grass-roots network, reiterated her belief that federal action is unlikely.

“I’ve never seen an indication that that’s even a possibility,” Deutermann said.

The boycott leader cited a recent statement by David Cleary, chief of staff to Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

Cleary said the education law authorizes states, rather than federal officials, to decide the consequences for schools that did not meet the 95 percent requirement. The statement was posted on a blog by Diane Ravitch, a New York University professor who served as counselor to Alexander when he was education secretary under President George H.W. Bush.

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said through a spokesman Friday that the agency has made no decision on imposing penalties, and is working with districts to change academic standards, assessments and evaluations.

Long Island has been at the forefront of the test-boycott controversy, recording the heaviest concentrations of student refusals in the state during English language arts and math exams in grades three through eight last spring.

Statewide, more than 200,000 students — approximately 20 percent of those eligible — pulled out of testing, the largest boycott in the nation. About 70,000 of those pupils were on the Island.

“With the acknowledgment that the system needs to be revisited for improvement, now is not the time to penalize school districts,” the superintendents’ letter says.

When King was education commissioner in New York, he dealt with growing debate and criticism of the state’s education reforms, including testing and teacher evaluation systems.

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