Port Washington Superintendent Michael Hynes

Port Washington Superintendent Michael Hynes Credit: Ed Betz

If this year’s English Language Arts test questions looked familiar to third- through eighth-graders who took the state exams, that's because they were.

Questions many students had seen in practice exams from past years were the bulk of those on this year’s tests, leading some parents and administrators to dismiss the exams as a way to assess a child’s progress.

"Ludicrous, a waste of time," Port Washington Superintendent Michael Hynes said of the tests. He said school principals and parents called to say the students had seen the questions and answers to the tests beforehand. "This never should have happened. It is an exercise in futility."

The ELA tests were held during a nine-day window that ended Thursday. The mathematics portion of the tests are to be conducted starting Monday and ending May 14.

The state Education Department, which unsuccessfully sought a federal waiver to suspend testing altogether this school term, said the coronavirus pandemic had disrupted the process for testing and evaluating new questions for inclusion in this year’s tests.

The annual standardized tests were already controversial, especially on Long Island, where thousands of parents and educators have boycotted them and students have long opted out of taking them. But parents who thought the tests would assess their child’s progress were surprised and disappointed their children were given questions they already had seen.

They also were upset, "as they should be," Hynes said.

The tests were canceled last spring amid the pandemic. This year, the U.S. Department of Education insisted that New York conduct them, denying the state Department of Education the waiver it had sought.

Emily DeSantis, a spokesperson for the state Education Department, said the department's "inability to field test questions during the pandemic required that previously administered test questions be used in the event that our assessment waiver request was not approved by the U.S. Department of Education. The decision to use previously administered test questions in this extraordinary year was based on guidance from nationally recognized experts in the assessment field."

In seeking the waiver, the state said the tests would not be useful to fairly assess an individual or school district’s progress, given the disruptions of the school year and the many students studying remotely.

The state had determined it would not offer the tests remotely or require remote students to take the in-person tests. It shortened the tests, which are taking place over one day rather than two in each session, and schools faced no consequences or penalties for low participation rates. Federal aid distribution is not tied to test results.

On LI Opt-Out’s Facebook page, the anti-standardized testing group’s leader, Jeanette Deutermann, addressed the confusion over the inclusion of old questions. She noted, "Many are wondering if this was a mistake, if this is somehow unfair, or if there is some kind of nefarious motivation behind it. Here’s the answer: No, no, and no."

She noted that after the state Education Department was forced to administer the tests, it "responded by making this year’s test the least harmful they could." State Education Department officials "told me their number one priority was the welfare of the kids and everything else was secondary," Deutermann said.

Some teachers complained to her that not all classrooms practiced the test questions, she said. But a complaint that might have been legitimate in the past was not important this year when the tests have no consequences, she said.

Hynes applauded the state’s attempt to obtain a waiver, noting the pandemic complicated the system for testing, evaluating and choosing test questions.

"The fact our teachers, administrators, and most important our students, had to commit valuable time taking and administering these assessments is questionable during a normal school year, but to me, inexcusable this year," Hynes said in a statement.

"This lapse in test security that has resulted in significant numbers of students across New York State having access to the test questions further reinforces the misguided decision making that led to the administering of these tests in the first place," the statement said.

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