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LI district: Opt-outs may bring state downgrade

Island Park's schools chief warns the middle school could be on an upcoming state list of schools seen as low academic performers, partly because of the number of students who boycotted tests last spring.

Laura Bernhardt, whose daughter is a fourth-grader at

Laura Bernhardt, whose daughter is a fourth-grader at Francis X. Hegarty School in Island Park, is among parents who had their children boycott state tests last spring in English Language Arts and math. Photo Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

A statewide effort to deal with massive student test boycotts has sparked debate in the Island Park school district, where officials contend that one of their schools could face academic sanctions because of opt-outs there. 

Island Park's school superintendent, Rosmarie Bovino, recently posted a letter on the district's website advising residents that Lincoln Orens Middle School was in danger of being placed on an upcoming state list of schools regarded as low academic performers. 

Under a new state rating system that is based largely on test performance, such schools will be designated as requiring comprehensive support and improvement, or CSI. The state Education Department is expected to release names of the first group of schools as early as next week .

CSI schools, ranked among the bottom 5 percent or 10 percent of all schools statewide, would be subject to penalties, including potential closure, if they did not show improvement in test scores, graduation rates and other state-selected criteria. 

Bovino's letter went on to say that nearly 60 percent of students at Lincoln Orens, which has the fifth through eighth grades, refused to take last spring's state tests. Islandwide, the opt-out rate was nearly 50 percent, involving more than 90,000 students in grades three through eight who took the tests in English Language Arts and math; statewide, more than 210,000 of 1.1 million eligible pupils boycotted the exams. 

"It is unfortunate that a high opt-out rate resulting from parents' removal of children from state tests," along with other factors, might result in a CSI designation for the middle school, Bovino stated.

Among other factors cited by the superintendent was a technical limitation that she said did not allow the state to consider relatively high achievement by the district's English language learners, because the 29 students in that group fell just below the 30-student minimum required for consideration.

"While I certainly respect a parent's right to decide what is best for their child in terms of taking the tests, please understand that there are benefits to student participation that go beyond improving our state performance calculation," Bovino wrote in the two-page letter, dated Jan. 4. "Students develop lifelong test-taking and resiliency skills."

In Island Park, as elsewhere on Long Island, the controversy over student testing has split the community. The small system, which covers prekindergarten through eighth grade, serves about 1,040 students in a mostly middle-class community on Hempstead Town's southern shore. Its graduates go on to high school in either the Long Beach or West Hempstead districts.

Laura Bernhardt, 46, the mother of a fourth-grader, is among parents who objected to what they considered the sharp tone of the school chief's letter. 

"I felt the letter was overly critical of the role of parents in this controversy," said Bernhardt, who teaches math in another district and had her own daughter opt out of state tests beginning last year. "We're simply making decisions that we feel are in our child's interest."

Bernhardt, like many parents across the Island whose children have boycotted the exams, believes that the state's current test system,  which links students' scores to teachers' job evaluations , puts too much pressure on children and faculty alike. 

Bovino, in her letter, initially called for a public meeting Monday night  to further explain the middle school situation and to urge parents to allow their children's participation in the next round of tests in April and May. On Friday , the district canceled the meeting, saying it would be rescheduled after the state reaches a final decision on the middle school's academic status. 

Jack Vobis, the school board president, said Friday that the district has appealed the CSI designation for its middle school but had not yet heard back from state education officials. 

"There's no need to jump the gun," Vobis said, in explaining the rationale behind canceling Monday's forum. "We'll just hold off until the state decides what the status will be." 

Bovino did not respond to a phone call from Newsday.

In Albany, state education officials said they were "considering all appeals" and would soon make an announcement on CSI and other designations. 

Department staffers said the new school rating system is broader than the one it replaces, drawing not only on graduation rates and English and math scores, but also on criteria such as student performance in science and social studies, readiness for college and class attendance.

"As a consequence of these changes, some schools that would not have been identified under the old system will be identified under the new system, and vice versa," officials said.   

State lawmakers, meanwhile, are weighing additional changes in the state's testing and evaluation system. 

Democratic leaders in the Senate and the Assembly said they plan to reintroduce legislation that would repeal the mandatory ties between student test scores and teacher evaluations. Some legislators added that changes could be approved this month or next, and then passed along to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who has not indicated whether he would sign the measure into law. 

In response, state organizations representing both school superintendents and boards of education recently have urged lawmakers to draw on the experience and advice of state and local education leaders before making any drastic changes.

Charles Dedrick, executive director of the State Council of School Superintendents, noted that there already have been three significant rounds of changes in the state's teacher evaluation system — in 2010, 2012 and 2015 — and that the state still is grappling with problems identified with the 2015 law. 

"We should take the time, this time, to be sure we finally are making changes that actually will support better teaching, school leadership, and, most of all, student achievement," Dedrick said in a news release.

Proponents of change do not disagree, but say that timely action is required after more than eight years of debate over these issues.

"We want to have buy-in from the important communities of parents, teachers and administrators, and so we face hard and painstaking work in getting this done," said state Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach). "But this shouldn't get in the way of uprooting a broken program."

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