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Students, get out your pencils: Here comes the ELA

Third-graders at Charles E. Walters Elementary School in

Third-graders at Charles E. Walters Elementary School in Yaphank take a test electronically on March 30, 2017. Credit: Randee Daddona

Elementary and middle school students in at least 78 of Long Island’s 124 public school districts will start taking the state English Language Arts exam in traditional paper-and-pencil style on Wednesday, as the multiday rollout of this spring’s new test timeline continues.

With the state Education Department having shortened the test days from three to two, the 700-plus districts statewide were directed to choose two consecutive days from Wednesday through Friday for the paper-based ELA exam.

On Long Island, the number of districts administering the paper-based test on Wednesday and Thursday was drawn from a Newsday survey to which 96 districts responded. Districts also can administer the test on Thursday and Friday.

For districts that decided to use computer-based tests in some grades, Tuesday was the first day that students took the electronic version of the ELA. Local systems had the option to schedule the computer-based test on two consecutive days from Tuesday through April 17.

Statewide, more than 32,000 students began those electronic tests — which feature the same material as the paper exams. That was more than the total for students taking both the ELA and math tests in 2017, Education Department spokesman Jonathan Burman said.

“While there were some calls to technical support asking for assistance, all instances were resolved expediently and to the schools’ satisfaction,” he said. “All schools we have spoken with reported having very positive experiences.”

On Long Island, a handful of districts — including Fishers Island, Islip, Merrick, West Islip and Westhampton Beach — told Newsday that Tuesday was the first of two days of computer-based ELA exams for some of their students Tuesday.

In Islip, fourth- and fifth-graders took the test electronically.

“Several tools were available for students to use to make them more efficient readers,” Ellen Semel, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said in a statement. “For example, our students were able to highlight text . . . They chose different font sizes. Some highlighted and others did not. They were able to customize their reading just as teachers differentiated their instruction — these tools allowed them to have a differentiated assessment.”

Christian Arsenault, principal of the tiny Fishers Island School, said students in the third, fourth and seventh grades starting taking the computer-based exam, or CBT, on Tuesday.

“We found the test to be very efficient, organized and technically sound,” Arsenault said.

In a separate but related matter, a dispute has arisen over exactly how this year’s state assessments will be scored.

The state’s scoring system will have to be revamped because the current tests also are shorter in length than those used in the past. The question being fought over in Albany is whether revised scoring should be easier or held to the same difficult standard as before.

New York State United Teachers, the state’s largest teachers union, wrote in a letter posted on its website that the Education Department should change scoring so that the number of students in grades three through eight deemed proficient on tests would closely align with numbers of students passing Regents exams in high school.

Any such change would raise test-proficiency levels in grades through eight — numbers that previously hovered around 40 percent — to more than 70 percent.

Jolene DiBrango, the union’s executive vice president, said in an interview Monday that the proposed change would allow “teachers and parents to be able to trust results from the exams.”

Advocates of the current testing system, in a recent news release, accused the teachers’ organization of “conducting a campaign to lower expectations for students.”

Ian Rosenblum, executive director of the advocacy group, Education Trust-New York, told Newsday that maintaining high scoring standards is essential. The nonprofit group is supported in part by a foundation financed by software magnate Bill Gates.

DiBrango countered that the union holds high expectations for students, but believes the state scoring benchmarks used in the past “didn’t make sense.”

With the start of paper-based testing Wednesday comes the possibility of significant boycotts of the controversial assessments. Test refusals on the Island, known as the epicenter of the opt-out movement, have run much higher than the state average — about 51 percent last year on the ELA.

Opt-out activists have long said the tests do not accurately measure student achievement and that far too much class time is devoted to test preparation.

The trimming of the test days from three to two, as well as the lessening of test questions, were among the steps that the state Board of Regents took in response to the boycotts.

In the Carle Place school district, paper-based testing begins Wednesday, said Superintendent David Flatley, who also is president of the Nassau County Council of School Superintendents. Last year, about 50 percent of students in that district boycotted the ELA exam, according to a Newsday survey.

“I applaud the commissioner and the Board of Regents for listening to the concerns of parents and educators and doing their best in trying to move in the direction of more meaningful assessments,” Flatley said. “We will see later this week whether, at least on Long Island, that has some kind of impact on the numbers . . . and I am hopeful that it does.”

With Michael R. Ebert and Kathy Diamond

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