Sixth grade students who opted out of the ELA state...

Sixth grade students who opted out of the ELA state test work on studies at Saxton Middle School in Patchogue on April 5, 2016. Credit: Jeffrey Basinger

This story was reported by Michael R. Ebert, Candice Ferrette, Víctor Manuel Ramos, Joie Tyrrell and Olivia Winslow and was written by Tyrrell.

Long Island appeared on the threshold of cementing its place as the epicenter of the opt-out movement statewide, with tens of thousands of students refusing to take the state’s English language arts exam Tuesday on the first day of Common Core testing, a Newsday survey showed.

With 74 of the Island’s 124 districts responding, nearly 58,000 of about 115,000 eligible students in grades three through eight had opted out of the test, marking a 50.1 percent refusal rate Islandwide.

In Nassau districts that responded, 44.6 percent opted out, while responses from Suffolk districts showed 56.4 percent boycotting the exam.

Anti-testing activists said the opt-outs sent a clear message to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, the Board of Regents and the state Education Department: The tests and curricula aligned with the Common Core academic standards must be wholly reconsidered.

“The message is, ‘Fix it in its entirety and fix it now,’ ” said Jeanette Deutermann, a North Bellmore parent and founder of the Long Island Opt Out network. “Clearly, parents have made the decision that these tests are not what they want for their children. Most parents that opt out are not doing so for one reason, but a wide range of reasons.”

Educators predicted the refusal numbers will increase as the English exams, commonly known as the ELAs, continue Wednesday and Thursday. Next week, students face three days of state math assessments, from Wednesday through Friday.

“The numbers . . . send a thunderclap to Albany,” said Patchogue-Medford Superintendent Michael J. Hynes, who has appeared at community forums across the Island organized by parent opt-out leaders. “The tests are not in the best interest of our children.”

In that Suffolk district, more than 71 percent of eligible students in grades three through eight refused to take the exam Tuesday — an increase from the 66 percent who opted out last year.

This is the fourth year of test refusals linked to state-driven education reforms.

In spring 2015, an estimated 200,000 students statewide — more than 70,000 of them on Long Island — refused to take state tests in English and math, the largest such boycott in the nation. The year prior, nearly 9,500 students opted out, according to the Newsday survey on the final day of ELA testing in April 2014. The year before that, a small group of a few hundred students, mainly in Rockville Centre, declined to take the tests.

The Education Department said it did not plan to issue a statement Tuesday on the refusals.

The boycott surged from Merrick to Montauk, despite emergency regulations the Regents approved and the Education Department began to carry out in response to the controversy. The number of exam questions were lessened and a four-year moratorium was put in place that means scores cannot be used punitively against students or teachers, whose performance evaluations are by law linked to the test results.

In addition, the Education Department hired a new company — Questar Assessment Inc., a Minneapolis-based firm — to help create new tests. This year’s exams still use material from the former company, Pearson Education.

Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, in a letter sent to newspapers statewide and published over the weekend, had urged parents to have their children participate, saying the tests are the only objective measure the agency has to compare student progress between schools and districts.

Tuesday, all of those efforts did not appear to have made much of a dent in the boycott numbers.

In the Buffalo area, boycotts in local districts ranged from 49 percent to 71 percent, and in Rochester the refusal rate was about 29 percent, according to news reports.

Of the Long Island districts that responded Tuesday, about 35 reported that more than half of their eligible students boycotted the test. Comsewogue led the Island of those replying to Newsday’s survey, with 86 percent of eligible students refusing the exam.

“The numbers speak for themselves. The parents have spoken, and what’s the message? ‘Listen to the parents. Listen to us,’ ” Comsewogue Superintendent Joseph Rella said. “Parents have made their minds up, and the attempt by state saying ‘Everything’s changed and it’s better’ — the parents are not buying it.”

Rella said the state should cease what he called a “terrible, broken program.’ ”

“Get people together who are competent to fix it,” he said. “We have wasted time and money and this is the fourth year and they are never going to get this time back. While it is being fixed, stop it, stop it.”

Parents in the opt-out movement charge the exams are harmful and have developmentally inappropriate questions, that extensive test-prep time detracts from instruction in other subjects, and that the assessments put undue pressure on students and teachers.

Medford parent Diana Andrade was among those in the Patchogue-Medford district whose children did not take the exam Tuesday. Her kids are in the fifth and seventh grades.

“These tests are absolutely developmentally inappropriate,” said Andrade, who has served on the district’s school board for the past two years. “What has happened in the last three to four years since this has rolled out is there has been much less time spent on social studies, science and even field trips and the arts.”

In the days leading up to the first day of the exam, message boards on grass-roots activists’ social media sites were filled with comments and questions about submitting test-refusal letters to districts and early reports of refusal numbers in some local systems, along with anecdotes of conversations with parents, students and educators.

On Monday, Douglas Mayers, president of the NAACP’s Freeport/Roosevelt branch, cautioned parents that opting out of the tests “cannot be an option for our children” because of the role the exams play in identifying academic need in schools and districts with a high proportion of students of color.

In Hempstead, school board president LaMont Johnson said Tuesday that most eligible students in the district were taking the test, as was the case last year, though he could not provide specifics. He said he supports the push to improve performance through testing and said he had not heard many complaints about it from parents or students.

“I just think that our students are ready for the challenge of whatever test is put before them, and they are not frightened by the standards,” Johnson said. “If you tell a child not to take the test, you are giving them a cop-out . . . and we are trying to do better and we are not running away from challenges.”

New York State rolled out its first tests based on national Common Core academic standards in spring 2013. Soon after implementation, dozens of teachers complained the state Education Department had not supplied adequate guides of the brand-new curricula, and many parents expressed deep concern about age-inappropriate test questions and plunging passage rates.

The linkage of students’ test scores to teachers’ and principals’ performance evaluations fueled the opposition. That intensified after Cuomo pushed a law through the legislature in spring 2015 requiring districts to base up to 50 percent of the job ratings on student exam scores.

After the record test boycott last spring, Cuomo backtracked, convening an advisory panel to re-examine education policy and make recommendations. That group suggested the four-year moratorium on use of students’ test scores, which the Regents approved as part of emergency regulations, with the stipulation that teachers continue getting job ratings on an advisory basis.

Deutermann said although the state is considering a gradual shift in the state standards, officials should be looking immediately to decouple teacher evaluations with the exams.

The Rockville Centre school district — where some of the first refusals linked to Common Core tests occurred in spring 2013 — reported at least 60 percent of eligible students opted out.

Superintendent William Johnson said the action sent a clear message to the state.

“Things need to change more radically than they have and we need to move away from the current testing protocol faster,” Johnson said. “Do it now. Abandon this whole testing protocol. . . . It’s anachronistic, it’s unnecessary, it could be easily replaced and it makes no sense in the current environment.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story gave incorrect percentage of students Islandwide and in Suffolk County who refused to take the English Language Arts exam.

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