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The problem with LI’s high opt-out rate on state school tests

Students at Southside Middle School prepare to take

Students at Southside Middle School prepare to take a Common Core mathematics test in Rockville Centre on April 24, 2015. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

The news on the 2017 standardized test scores for New York State students in grades three through eight is pretty good.

The results might be good even for Long Island, but thanks to opt-out fever, with the rates of students who refused the tests about four times higher in this region than in the rest of the state, it’s practically impossible to say.

Across the state, proficiency rates on the Common Core-based exams rose from 37.9 percent to 39.8 percent in English and from 39.1 percent to 40.2 percent in math, and while the totals show there’s plenty of work still to do, the gains are to be applauded. There was even more encouraging news about the stubborn achievement gap growing smaller for black and Hispanic students. Minority gains were more than twice those of the general population in English and about 25 percent greater than the overall score gains in math.

Statewide, the opt-out rate on the spring tests declined from 21 percent to 19 percent, which is both positive and deceiving. The statewide opt-out rate, if you subtract students of Nassau and Suffolk counties, is just under 14 percent. But on Long Island, more than 50 percent of eligible kids refused the tests, a number that increased slightly over 2016, skewing the whole state average and shrouding the size of the improvement elsewhere in New York.

A major consequence of the high opt-outs is that districts can’t make improvements or broaden best practices because they have no data that highlight strengths and weaknesses.

“We can’t really use these figures to inform instruction or to draw wholesale conclusions on school programs, because over 50 percent of our students did not take tests,” said Lorna Lewis, superintendent of Plainview-Old Bethpage schools and co-chair of the curriculum committee for the New York State Council of School Superintendents.


For the most part, it’s almost impossible to say what a letter grade in a given class, in a given school or district, means, particular in elementary school. Your son or daughter got an A in fourth-grade English? And the same in fourth-grade math? OK. That doesn’t tell you whether the teacher, or the school or the district, is hard or easy. It doesn’t indicate your child’s strengths and weaknesses on an objective scale.

The 2017 test results for Long Island schools seem to raise serious issues. In English, they show many districts with huge drop-offs in testing proficiency from fourth to fifth grade, and from fifth to sixth. Is that real or a consequence of test refusals? Islandwide, the eighth-grade proficiency rates in standardized math tests are horrible, at 15 percent. But is that due to advanced students bowing out of that test to take the algebra Regents instead? If so, what does that say about the education given to less precocious students?

In many high-needs districts, like Central Islip, Brentwood, Freeport and Hempstead, scores plummet from elementary to middle school. The opt-out numbers in such districts vary, but are statistically significant. So do terrible middle-school scores reflect the best students refusing to be examined in middle school, or the worst?

Then there is the fact that Nassau County schools consistently outscore Suffolk County schools, with 30 percent to 40 percent more students achieving proficiency in both math and English in every grade in Nassauin 2017. This could mean the teachers are better in Nassau, or the students are better prepared at home. But far higher opt-outs in Suffolk could also be to blame. In 2017, 56 percent of kids opted out of the English tests in Suffolk, compared with 44 percent in Nassau. In math, 37 percent refused in Nassau while a startling 55 percent opted out in Suffolk.


Perhaps most worrisome is the increasing population of students who have never taken these standardized tests. A significant number of students entering middle school have opted out every spring.

If your child, a fifth-grader in a school where only 30 percent of students achieved proficiency, has never taken the tests, are you assuming he or she is proficient? Do you think there’s any chance they will do well on the college-entrace ACTs or SATs, having never learned to take such tests? Why?

Parents and teachers revolted against significant mistakes the state made in implementing Common Core and new, far harder tests in 2013, but the state heard those complaints. The tests are shorter now, and have no time limits. Starting in the spring, they will last two days each instead of three. The standards have been approved by the state’s teachers and parents. The old firm that provided the tests is gone. What is the beef now?

Long Island is known for its great schools, and people suffer the high taxes because of that recognition. But what happens where there are no data to support that premise?

Would you buy a home in a district where practically none of the kids took the standardized tests, and haven’t for years? Just as important, would you expect to be able to sell one?