State education officials for the first time are using BOCES districts to collect data about the volume of students in grades three through eight boycotting standardized tests, according to emails that contradict an earlier Education Department claim that it wasn't compiling such numbers.
The department Friday confirmed it asked BOCES officials across the state "to survey their local districts and come up with estimated percentage ranges for the number of students opting out," chief spokesman Dennis Tompkins said. There are 37 Board of Cooperative Educational Services districts.
Tompkins said the agency will release figures whenever they are available from all of the approximately 700 school districts statewide.
The move to gather figures comes as test refusals surged on Long Island and elsewhere in the state during administration of the math test, given Wednesday through Friday, and the English Language Arts test, given April 14-16.
Test refusals on the Island have risen so high that the region has drawn national attention. Newsday surveys showed 46.5 percent of eligible students in Nassau and Suffolk counties opted out of the math exam and 42.6 percent refused to take the English test.
One regional agency involved in data is Eastern Suffolk BOCES, which works with local districts in Brookhaven and Islip towns as well as in the East End.
"The State Education Department is compiling information regarding the number of students in New York State who opted out of the Grades 3-8 English Language Arts Test and the Grades 3-8 Mathematics Test," Dean T. Lucera, superintendent of Eastern Suffolk BOCES wrote in an email to dozens of school officials. He asked that attached surveys be returned to him by Monday via email.
Lucera's message is dated April 21, which was Tuesday. Newsday obtained a copy.
On Wednesday, in response to a Newsday reporter's query, Education Department spokesman Jonathan Burman said the agency "is not collecting opt-out numbers from districts."
Tompkins, the department's chief of external affairs and Burman's boss, said Friday that data received so far consists of estimated percentage ranges, not actual student counts.
"I'm sorry we were not clearer on this," Tompkins messaged Newsday. "We didn't mean to confuse this issue. The BOCES reports were scattered and not comprehensive, and folks here didn't think the anecdotal information we were receiving was appropriate for the department to release."
Local superintendents voiced hope that the number of test refusals will convince the agency to revise its system of testing and teacher evaluations based on test scores, while giving districts adequate time to make adjustments.
"I have to believe the state Education Department is concerned about the number of opt-outs," said Henry Grishman, superintendent of Jericho schools and a former president of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. "Hopefully, they'll take appropriate action."
State leaders of the test-refusal movement have blamed Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo for much of the turmoil, with his pushes in 2012 and this spring for legislation increasing the use of student test scores in rating teachers' job performance.
Cuomo, asked Friday about the growing number of opt-outs, pointed out that state law currently bans districts from using the test scores in students' class placements.
"My position was, the Department of Education hasn't done a good job in introducing the Common Core and they had rushed it, so we said for a period of five years that test scores won't count," the governor said. "So they can opt out if they want to, but, on the other hand, if the child takes the test, it's practice, and the score doesn't count anyway."
Test-boycott leaders reject such arguments, saying the emphasis on English and math has led to increased classroom drills and taken time away from other topics.
"Oh my God, he's still not getting it!" said Jeanette Deutermann, a North Bellmore mother of two and chief organizer of a group known as LI Opt-Out. "It has everything to do with the effect on students. The effect is the loss of music, the loss of art, the loss of social studies and science, the loss of recess time."
With Matthew Chayes