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Long Island

School districts prepare for boycotts of Common Core tests

Longwood Middle School is currently preparing to take the English Language Arts exam next week, which will be a computerized test. Beginning last year, the school experimented with a field test that Lisa Mato, director of special programs and data reporting for the Longwood School District, said "went extremely well."  (Credit: Ed Betz)

Public school districts across Long Island and the state are bracing for what many educators and parents expect to be a fifth consecutive year of Common Core test boycotts in grades three through eight, even as eight districts in Nassau and Suffolk counties and dozens elsewhere introduce computerized versions of the exams.

The state’s time window for the English language arts test starts Monday and closes a week later, both on the Island and statewide. Extra days were added, as compared with last year’s schedule, to allow flexibility in giving the computer-based exams. The traditional pencil-and-paper tests will be given Tuesday through Thursday.

Officials in some Long Island districts put estimates of opt-outs at 40 percent to 70 percent of their eligible students.

Brian Conboy, superintendent of Seaford schools, said he expects the boycott of English exams in his district to run close to last year’s 67.8 percent.

“I’m a firm believer in assessment,” Conboy said. “However, assessment has to be developmentally appropriate for students. In the case of how these assessments rolled out, all trust was lost.”

Cheryl Haas, who lives in the Hauppauge district and is keeping her twin daughters out of the eighth-grade English test, also predicted that refusals would equal last year’s local rate of 71.9 percent. Haas, a former teacher, agreed that tests must be developmentally appropriate — that is, not beyond students’ age and skill levels.

“Until then, parents will stand united to do what is best for their children,” Haas said.

Some boycott organizers noted that opt-out rates are difficult to project in advance, because many parents wait until the first week of testing to file refusal forms with their districts.

More than a year has passed since the state Board of Regents moved to ease anxieties over testing by declaring a moratorium, until the 2019-20 school year, on using test scores in any way that might reflect poorly on students’ academic records or as a component in teachers’ job evaluations.

The nation’s largest test-resistance movement, with Long Island as its epicenter, has emerged in New York State since 2013. Last April, the number of students in grades three through eight in the two-county region who skipped the English assessment reached 89,036, or 51.6 percent of the total eligible, based on data from 108 districts that responded to a Newsday survey.

Reasons behind the phenomenon: outrage and anxiety among teachers, parents and students over a series of educational reforms pushed by state and federal authorities, without adequate time for teachers and students to prepare.

Into the mixture this year add the introduction of computer-based tests.

Schools in five districts in Suffolk County and three in Nassau are going with the electronic versions: Bridgehampton, Franklin Square, Islip, Massapequa, Mineola, Mount Sinai, Longwood and Remsenburg-Speonk.

Districts on the Island that are administering tests electronically will do so only in selected schools or on selected grade levels. Other students in those districts will take traditional paper-and-pencil tests, as will students elsewhere.

Computer-based testing also is scheduled in three nonpublic schools — Our Lady of Lourdes in West Islip, St. Patrick’s in Huntington and St. William the Abbot in Seaford — as well as in three special-education centers run by Eastern Suffolk BOCES.

State math tests for grades three through eight are scheduled May 1-8.

Both kinds of tests, computer-based and paper-based, require three consecutive days for completion within the Education Department’s specified time periods.

Statewide, about 150 districts will offer computerized testing in English, and 136 will do the same in math, according to the state Education Department. The state has about 700 districts in all.

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said during an appearance in Westbury last week that the agency is approaching electronic assessment “slowly, cautiously,” in an effort to avoid mistakes associated with hurried reforms in past years.

School administrators responsible for the changeovers on the Island acknowledged the technical and psychological challenges involved in an era when all forms of standardized testing face resistance. Still, those experts said they believe the advantages of online assessments — efforts well under way in many states — outweigh the difficulties.

“It’s a tech-savvy world, and our kids are used to doing all sorts of things on computers, so I’m hoping they’ll do well on it,” said Lisa Mato, director of special programs and data reporting in the Longwood system. “That’s the wave of the future.”

Longwood students, like their contemporaries in other districts, won’t find the online testing format totally unfamiliar. Starting in January, the Education Department furnished districts with sets of practice questions.

Many districts, moreover, already have started using their own computerized exams, purchased from private testing organizations.

Increasingly, such assessments are “adaptive” in nature. That is, they adjust instantly to fit the skill levels of individual students by asking more difficult questions of students who answer previous items correctly, while asking easier questions of those who answered incorrectly.

“It’s not too hard or too easy — just perfect for your level,” said Alena Ibrahim, a fifth-grader at Longwood Middle School.

Test boycotts remain an issue, however, even in districts that are introducing computer-based exams. Mato expects 40 percent to 60 percent of local students in grades three through eight to opt out this week, and she is not alone.

Bob Schilling, the Massapequa district’s assistant to the superintendent for assessment, student data and technology services, predicted the boycott rate there would be about 50 percent.

Test refusals in Massapequa hit about 65 percent last spring, so Schilling’s outlook reflects a certain optimism. The veteran administrator said the moratorium makes parents “feel a little more comfortable” with the tests.

The revolt has focused on rollout of revised curricula based upon the Common Core academic standards, which started in the 2012-13 school year across New York. Those innovations included tougher state tests tied to teacher job performance.

In spring 2015, the boycott grew so large — with parents pulling more than 200,000 students out of testing in English language arts and mathematics, about 20 percent of those eligible statewide — that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo called for a sweeping review of the state’s academic standards and exams. Elia already had begun to reassess the controversial tests, and the state last year trimmed the number of exam questions and students did not face a time limit.

Last week, boycott leaders said that factors leading to anxiety about the exams have not changed much, and students probably would continue opting out in substantial numbers. They noted that the state continues to collect data on teachers and their students’ test scores, and speculated that such information could be used in job ratings once again when the moratorium lifts in 2019-20.

Jeanette Deutermann, a North Bellmore mother of two and chief founder of the Long Island Opt Out organization, acknowledged that the movement has kept a lower profile this year than last, with fewer public forums and rallies. Activists, however, have kept up a lively correspondence via Facebook and other social media — their principal means of organizing.

Deutermann declined to predict a specific number of test refusals, as she has in the past, because of the uncertainties involved.

“I’m hearing some districts say they expect to be flooded [with refusal forms] on Monday,” she said.

Another movement leader, Lisa Rudley, who lives in Westchester County, said she didn’t expect statewide opt-out numbers to decline significantly from last year’s figure, when about 200,000 students, or 21 percent of those eligible to take the tests, again boycotted them.

“We get a lot of emails from young parents, telling us when their kids reach third grade, they’re not going to have them take the tests,” Rudley said. She is a founding member of New York State Allies for Public Education, a statewide umbrella group representing parents, teachers and others.

Among the opponents’ objections is that state tests take up too much of students’ time, both in preparatory drills and in actual administration. State authorities estimate, for example, that grades five through eight will spend up to 90 minutes each day on the English and math assessments, or a total of nine hours over six days.

That is longer than time spent on the SAT, which is used in college admissions and requires no more than three hours, 50 minutes to complete.

The complaints have heightened interest in adaptive electronic tests. Supporters of adaptive exams say they can greatly reduce students’ test-taking time.

New York State’s tests are not adaptive. However, dozens of districts on the Island have purchased such assessments for their own use in recent years.

Thirty-nine districts use Measures of Academic Progress, or MAP, adaptive tests produced by a nonprofit group based in Oregon. An additional 20 districts use i-Ready tests, developed by a Massachusetts firm.

Leading educators on the Island have pressed the Education Department to use such exams as well. Proponents acknowledged, however, that any action at the state level would have to wait until President Donald Trump’s administration gets its educational policies in place.

Federal law requires a test participation rate of 95 percent by school districts and states. Penalties have not yet been spelled out for lower participation, however.

One supporter of adaptive tests, Bill Johnson, is superintendent of the Rockville Centre school district, where the Island’s first major test boycott took place in spring 2013.

Johnson, in an interview last week, said the state would go a long way to providing relief from pressures about exams if it allows districts to use timesaving adaptive tests in meeting state requirements for annual reading and math.

“There’s no reason in the world why we can’t do that in two hours,” Johnson said.

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