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Anxiety by many at forum on new student tests

Rockville Centre's Superintedent, Dr. William Johnson, center, was

Rockville Centre's Superintedent, Dr. William Johnson, center, was among the panelist speakers at the Hofstra open forum, alongside principal Dr. Sean Feeney, right, and Principal Dr. Don Sternberg. (April 10 2013) Credit: Johnny Milano

More than 700 Long Island teachers, parents and others -- many anxious about stepped-up state testing -- cheered and applauded a panel of veteran educators Wednesday night as they denounced Albany's new assessments as "lunacy" and "a perfect storm."

The two-hour panel session at Hofstra University was punctuated by expressions of sympathy for parents who in recent weeks have vowed to pull their children out of the upcoming new English and math tests. The forum, organized by a school principals' group, was entitled "More than a number: How state testing is affecting the educational and emotional health of our students."

Anxieties run high over state tests for grades 3 through 8, which begin Tuesday. State education officials have predicted a potential increase in student failure rates of 30 percentage points or more, and nearly 5,000 parents and others have tapped into a regional website urging families to "opt out" of testing.

This year's test questions, for the first time, reflect national Common Core academic standards that require more sophisticated reading, writing and math skills than in the past.

One panelist, William Johnson, superintendent of Rockville Centre schools, said his district has received letters from more than 20 parents, indicating they will refuse to let their children participate. Johnson, as have many other local administrators, responded that his district cannot force students to take the test, and that those who refuse will be allowed to read silently while classmates do so.

"We don't take issue with testing -- we take issue with the fact that there is more of this than we need," Johnson told the audience. "We have warned the state many times that, if they don't listen to us, the time might come when parents rise up."

The schools chief, a former president of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, added that his district alone has spent $550,000 to $1 million annually for test preparation and administration.

State testing officials have insisted, on the other hand, that all students are required to take every assessment assigned their grade levels. Any drop in test participation rates could result in lower academic ratings for schools, making them ineligible for special financial grants, those officials said.

Dennis Tompkins, chief spokesman for the state Education Department, issued a sharply worded statement Tuesday: "Parents who keep their children from taking these tests are essentially saying, 'I don't want to know where my child stands, in objective terms, on the path to college and career readiness' -- and we think that that's doing them a real disservice."

One disputed issue is whether there are any legal loopholes allowing students to skip state tests. Activists in a statewide opt-out campaign point to a provision in a state manual, specifying that regional assessment offices can enter a code number "999" for students who refuse to be tested.

State officials have dismissed this point as irrelevant. They have said their records list such students as "not tested," except in medical emergencies, and that significant numbers of untested students count against schools' academic standing.

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