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Survey: 45% of test-takers boycott ELA exam

Lia Kalathil, a fifth-grader at Holbrook Road Elementary

Lia Kalathil, a fifth-grader at Holbrook Road Elementary School in Centereach, takes the state English Language Arts exam on Thursday. Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

This story was reported by Michael R. Ebert, Zachary R. Dowdy, Bart Jones and Joie Tyrrell and was written by Tyrrell.

More than 68,000 elementary and middle school students in 99 systems across Long Island had refused to take the state English Language Arts exam as of Thursday — 45.1 percent of students eligible in those districts to take the tests, according to responses to a Newsday survey.

A breakdown of the responses showed 54.4 percent opted out in 54 Suffolk districts and 35.7 percent in 45 Nassau districts. The figures primarily stemmed from administration of paper-based tests, still given by most systems, with a small number of districts reporting on computer-based exams. All told, 124 districts Islandwide administer the ELA in at least some grades.

Complicating the tally was the state’s suspension of computer-based testing for a portion of the day Tuesday and all day Wednesday because of technical problems by the exam vendor, Questar Assessments Inc. About one-quarter of school districts on the Island had scheduled digital testing this week in at least some grades, the largest participation since the computer-based tests, or CBTs, have been available.

The results show the opt-out movement on the Island remains strong in what is the fifth consecutive year of major boycotts: 68,035 of 150,933 students in grades three through eight boycotted the exam, according to figures the districts reported. 

In April 2018, test refusals on the ELA reached 49.1 percent, according to a Newsday survey with responses from 115 districts. The statewide test-refusal average last year was 18 percent, according to the Education Department.

Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and the state Board of Regents have responded to criticism of the assessments, reducing the number of days that students sit for tests from three to two, trimming the number of questions and getting major input from educators, among other actions, said Emily DeSantis, a department spokeswoman. 

For the past four years, she said, Elia and the Regents "have listened to the concerns of parents and teachers and made significant changes to the exams as a result," DeSantis said in an emailed statement. "Hundreds of New York State educators were involved in creating, reviewing and selecting questions for the 2019 Grades 3-8 ELA and Math test forms. This year, New York State teachers reviewed all questions for inclusion on the assessments at least six times. It’s up to parents to decide if their children should take the tests, and we want them to have the all the facts so they can make an informed decision.”

This week, districts with the highest refusal rates that had responded to the survey included Comsewogue at 85.8 percent, Rocky Point at 79.4 percent, Shoreham-Wading River at 77 percent and Patchogue-Medford at 75.9 percent. All four districts have had similarly high opt-out rates in recent years.

On the flip side, 13 of the responding districts reported test-participation rates of 80 percent or higher. Some of the districts with low opt-out rates included Hempstead at 3.1 percent, Fire Island at 8.3 percent, East Hampton at 9.9 percent, Herricks at 11.4 percent and Westbury at 20.1 percent.

The paper-based English exam was given this week over two consecutive days of local districts' choice from Tuesday through Thursday — a time frame set by the state Education Department.

Computer-based ELA testing started Monday and continued part of Tuesday before the technological problems occurred. Administration of digital tests resumed Thursday, mostly for the fifth and eighth grades only. The state Education Department on Thursday said districts giving CBTs could schedule the tests from Monday through April 12. Originally, the digital testing was to end on Monday.

Each year, more than 1.1 million students across New York are eligible to sit for the ELA and math exams. About 200,000 of those are in the Island's schools. Districts are required by federal law to give the exams annually in grades three through eight.

In the Patchogue-Medford district, where only the paper-based test was given, the refusal rate of 75.9 percent ran about the same as last year.

Superintendent Michael J. Hynes said district officials had received materials from the state, including information to share with parents about changes the state had made in the exams.

"It was insulting. To me, it seems like propaganda," said Hynes, a longtime vocal critic of the state ELA and math tests. "If they have to sell the idea of why the tests are so great, that’s a real problem." He said he believes there will be an uptick in refusal rates for the math exams because of the technical troubles with the digital tests this week.

For the math exam, districts giving the digital test have set two consecutive days in the state-designated time frame of April 30 through May 7. Districts have chosen two consecutive days from May 1 through May 3 to give the paper-based math test.

While test refusals continue in large numbers on Long Island, some district officials have voiced support of the assessments, saying they are a solid measure of a student's ability and better prepare teachers and students. Wyandanch school officials have planned a rally later this month in support of the assessments.

Wyandanch parent Laure Rodriguez has two children in the system. Her daughter, 9, is in the third grade and her son, 10, is in the fourth grade.

"The teachers at the elementary level, they work hard to prepare them for these types of exams and situations, and it is important they take it," Rodriguez said. "I think that when they take exams, they are preparing them for real-life situations … It is setting them up to be prepared for the future and how to handle difficult situations."

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