Children hold up signs during the first New York rally...

Children hold up signs during the first New York rally in "The Great American Opt Out" at Comsewogue High School in Port Jefferson Station on Saturday, March 29, 2014. Credit: Ed Betz

Thousands of Long Island elementary and middle school students -- in record numbers in some districts -- refused to take the state's English Language Arts exam Tuesday, the first of three days the test is being given in public schools statewide.

About 16,000 students in grades 3 through 8, in 21 school districts in Nassau and Suffolk counties, opted out of the test, according to responses to a Newsday request to more than half of the Island's 124 districts. The other districts that Newsday reached out to did not respond or would not release numbers.

The ELA exam continues Wednesday and Thursday.

The number eclipses the level of refusals on last spring's exam, when nearly 9,500 students in 67 districts opted out, according to Newsday's survey on the final day of ELA testing last April. There is no state agency or official organization that gathers the number of students not taking the state test during the actual days of the exam's administration.

A number of districts reported record refusals. Rockville Centre said 1,005 students, or 60 percent of the 1,668 eligible, did not take the test. Last year, 754 of 1,640 students, about 46 percent, opted out.

William Johnson, the district's superintendent, said the increased number of refusals should "generate a real discussion about the need of having these lengthy tests" rather than other ways of assessing students' knowledge that are preferred by many educators.

"I think the parental displeasure with the test itself has been expanding," he said.

In Plainview-Old Bethpage, district officials said about 47 percent of the 2,261 students eligible opted out of the test. Last year, 18 percent of eligible students refused.

In Suffolk County, more than 65 percent of eligible students in Patchogue-Medford schools refused to take the test, as did more than half of those in the Babylon and Middle Country districts. Nearly half in the Three Village schools opted out.

Parents support movement

Jeanette Deutermann of Bellmore, a parent organizer of the opt-out movement on Long Island who was tracking test refusals, said she was "extremely encouraged by the results and proud of the parents who took this stand."

The movement, largely organized on social media, has been fueled by strong criticism of the ELA and math exams, which are more rigorous since being based on national Common Core academic standards. Controversy over the state's teacher evaluation system, in which students' test performance is tied to educators' job evaluations, also has driven the opt-out movement.

In August, when state education officials released results of last spring's ELA and math exams, they said more than 50,000 students statewide, or 5 percent, missed tests.

Deutermann, who started grassroots opposition efforts two years ago, said the large number of refusals will "invalidate any [teacher] evaluation that would be tied to testing."

With smaller numbers of students taking the exam, "at some point statistical data becomes invalid when there are too many gaps," she said. Deutermann's sons, 8 and 11, are in the third and sixth grades in the North Bellmore schools.

Jonathan Burman, a state Department of Education spokesman, called test refusal a "mistake" and said the exams provide an important tool.

"Every parent should know whether his or her child is on track for success in the fifth grade or high school graduation or success in college," he said.

The issue has spurred parents and educators across Long Island and the state, with large numbers of refusals reported Tuesday in the Buffalo, Rochester and Albany areas.

Roberta Gerold, Middle Country schools superintendent and president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association, said she was hearing reports of refusals running from 27 percent to 65 percent Islandwide, but she declined to identify individual districts. "Parents are saying that politics don't belong in public education," she said.

In the Middle Country district, based in Centereach, 2,307 students of the eligible 4,429 students -- 52 percent -- opted out, district officials said. Last year, about 27 percent of those eligible refused to take the test, Newsday found.

However, in Elmont, it was "a totally normal day," said Superintendent Albert Harper, who said 63 of about 2,200 eligible students opted out, 3 percent.

That still was more than Harper wanted to see.

"I support the Common Core testing as a needed tool for students," he said. "It's a useful snapshot, and I hope there's not too much pressure to do away with the exams."

Educators share opinions

Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch, SUNY Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher and the state school boards association have counseled parents against pulling their children from the test.

Tisch, in a statement, cautioned that if a school has less than 95 percent of its students participating in the assessments, it could lose significant federal funding.

In a blog post on the State University of New York's website, Zimpher encouraged students not to opt out.

"If we are truly trying to do 'what's best for kids,' we would use standardized test scores to diagnose where we need to improve teaching and learning so that kids come to college ready to succeed," Zimpher wrote.

In the Patchogue-Medford school district, about six to seven of every 10 students eligible to take the tests were given the opportunity to read, work on writing assignments or complete other school-related work in cafeterias and auditoriums. District officials said 2,250 out of 3,417 eligible students refused to take the test.

Michael Hynes, the district's superintendent, said he was not surprised at the high level of test refusals, because momentum was building among parents who were offended by the push for the tests from Albany.

"I don't know how the state is going to use any of these scores in any reliable way to measure any of the students -- or to measure the performance of teachers," he said.

"I think what the Regents should do is to gather some educators to help define and build a process of what these new assessments should look like," he said.

The state math test for grades 3 through 8 is scheduled for April 22 through 24. When last year's math exam was given, 10,765 students in 64 districts on the Island refused to take it, according to a Newsday survey.

Samples of opt-out numbers across LI

In Nassau

Elmont: 63 of about 2,200 eligible students opted out, 2.8 percent

Freeport: 337 of 2,920 eligible students opted out, 11.5 percent

Hicksville: 687 of 2,358 eligible students opted out, 29.1 percent

Malverne: 192 of 768 eligible students opted out, 25 percent

Plainview-Old Bethpage: 1,062 of 2,261 eligible students opted out, 47 percent

Rockville Centre: 1,005 of 1,668 eligible students opted out, 60.3 percent

Wantagh: 665 of 1,412 eligible students opted out, 47.1 percent

In Suffolk

Amityville: 459 of 1,260 eligible students opted out, 36.4 percent

Hampton Bays: 255 of 954 eligible students opted out, 26.7 percent

Patchogue-Medford: 2,250 of 3,417 eligible students opted out, 65.8 percent

Middle Country (Centereach): 2,307 of 4,429 eligible students opted out, 52 percent

Sag Harbor: 138 of 489 eligible students opted out, 28.2 percent

Three Village (East Setauket): About 1,460 of 2,984 eligible students opted out, 49 percent

William Floyd (Mastic Beach): 1,550 of 3,909 eligible students opted out, 39.7 percent

Source: School districts

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