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Test boycotts top 50% on LI as large opt-outs continue

Local school leaders say the pattern of resistance, established over several years, will be hard to break unless the state makes dramatic changes.

Third-graders who opted out of the state English

Third-graders who opted out of the state English Language Arts test pass the time in the cafeteria at Davison Avenue School in Malverne on Thursday, April 12, 2018. Photo Credit: Jeff Bachner

This story was reported by John Hildebrand, Keshia Clukey, Michael R. Ebert and Bart Jones. It was written by Hildebrand.

More than half of eligible students on Long Island boycotted the state English Language Arts test this week — a continuation of high opt-outs despite state efforts to win back students and their parents by shortening the exams.

A total of 74,018 students in grades three through eight across Nassau and Suffolk counties refused to take the exam out of 145,127 students eligible, according to a Newsday survey that drew responses from 97 of the Island’s 124 districts. That is a refusal rate of 51 percent.

In Nassau, 28,831 students out of 67,630 students in the districts that responded, or 42.6 percent, sat out the latest assessments. In Suffolk, 45,187 students out of 77,497 in the responding systems, or 58.3 percent, refused to participate.

Exam times for both the ELA and math tests were reduced this year to two days, compared with three days in the past. Under the change, individual districts had the option to give the ELA on two consecutive days from Wednesday through Friday for the traditional paper-and-pencil exam or from Tuesday through April 17 for the computer-based test.

The majority of districts chose Wednesday and Thursday for test-taking, and most also were giving the paper-based exam.

So far, opt-outs in the Island’s schools are running close to the 52.2 percent peak recorded at this time last year. The boycott movement has now racked up six straight years of support, starting on a small scale in spring 2013 and ballooning to tens of thousands of students annually since 2015.

The Comsewogue district, serving Port Jefferson Station, hit a new local refusal record of 90.3 percent.

School systems reporting opt-out rates of 60 percent or more included Bellmore-Merrick, Malverne, Seaford, Babylon, Middle Country, Patchogue-Medford and West Babylon.

Regional school leaders observed Thursday that a pattern of resistance to state tests has been established — a habit, they said, that will be hard to break. Parents have not been moved by changes in the state’s testing system, which included revamping and dropping the Common Core academic standards, as well as shortening the exams.

“There’s nothing there that would inspire parents to change,” said Roberta Gerold, superintendent of Middle Country schools and a former president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association. “Reducing the test time from three days to two, changing the name from Common Core to Next Generation, is not enough.”

Gerold, like many educators and parent leaders, said that the only likely solution would be a dramatic change in state law.

The test-protest movement took root in 2013, the year after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo pushed through a law stiffening requirements for teacher job evaluations and tying those ratings closely to student test scores. Ever since, activists and some educators — including the state’s largest teacher union — have insisted that the governor should unlink the connection between teacher ratings and student scores.

Aides to the governor, who is expected to seek re-election in November, did not respond to Newsday’s request for a statement on the evaluations law.

Ian Rosenblum, executive director of The Education Trust-New York, a nonprofit advocacy group, issued a statement Thursday describing state assessments as essential tools for ascertaining whether all students receive quality education.

“New York’s education leaders have already made significant changes based on feedback from parents, educators and the public, and we believe it’s time to work together to ensure all students can meet high expectations,” Rosenblum said.

State Education Department representatives said Thursday that this year’s tests contain “substantially fewer questions than in recent years.” Over the past three years, the department, in what it describes as an attempt to lessen pressure on students, also has moved to untimed tests.

But parent leaders of the opt-out movement said this week that the state’s action in lifting time limits has had the effect of keeping some students at their desks answering questions for longer time periods than would normally be considered healthy.

“The reality is our kids are being tested for up to six hours a day,” said Jeanette Deutermann, a parent in the Bellmore district and a founder of the Long Island Opt Out network.

To comply with federal law, school districts are supposed to administer English and math tests to at least 95 percent of their students in grades three through eight each year. Students also must be assessed in those subjects at least once during their years in high school.

So far, both federal and state governments are handling enforcement in a gingerly fashion.

Earlier this week, the state Board of Regents met in Albany and approved new enforcement regulations. Under those rules, elementary and middle schools that fall below the 95 percent requirement — and that applies to almost all such schools in Nassau and Suffolk counties — must develop plans to increase student participation.

Schools failing to show improvement after two years must bring in regional BOCES officials to help them draft new plans. Subsequent failure will subject schools to state audits, but not necessarily to any penalties such as loss of federal or state financial aid.

Alan Singer, an education professor at Hofstra University, said in an interview Thursday that the 95 percent rule originally was meant to ensure that no students “fell between the cracks” in terms of academic evaluation. In particular, the aim was to prevent schools from ignoring the learning needs of impoverished minorities.

“This was never envisioned as a way of dealing with opt-out movements,” said Singer, noting that such movements are largely middle-class. “So the reason that there’s no penalty for opt-outs is the recognition that parents have the right to say they do not want their children tested in this way. I think that’s the key.”

Long Island frequently been described as the epicenter of the test boycott movement in New York.

Spring 2013 was the first year that students in grades three through eight got tests based on national Common Core academic standards. Several hundred students in Nassau and Suffolk counties — many of them in Rockville Centre — skipped assessments that year.

The year after that, nearly 9,500 students refused to be tested, according to a Newsday survey on the final day of ELA testing in April 2014.

In spring 2015, with increased activism by parents and teachers, the number of students opting out mushroomed into the largest such boycott in the nation. An estimated 200,000 students statewide, more than 70,000 of them on the Island, refused to participate in English and math exams — one-fifth of those eligible to do so.

In December 2015, the state Board of Regents, acting on the recommendations of a gubernatorial advisory panel, imposed a four-year moratorium on using test scores to evaluate teachers. That moratorium is due to expire at the start of the 2019-20 school year, but Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia has recently raised the possibility of an extension.

Boycotts have continued, despite the moratorium and other efforts by Albany policymakers to mollify test protesters.

Last year at this time, 67,789 students in 92 districts responding to a Newsday survey boycotted ELA tests on the first full-fledged day of assessments. At that time, those opting out represented 50.7 percent of students eligible for testing.

Top opt-out districts

Nassau

Bellmore-Merrick: 70.3%

Levittown: 66.6%

Seaford: 65.8%

Bellmore: 65.4%

Massapequa: 62.8%

Suffolk

Comsewogue: 90.3%

Shoreham-Wading River: 78.9%

Patchogue-Medford: 76.4%

Bayport-Blue Point: 74%

Connetquot: 74%

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