More than half of eligible LI students opt out of Common Core test

Date Posted: 
Monday, April 11, 2016

This article first appeared in Newsday.

More than half of Long Island students eligible to take the state Common Core test in English Language Arts refused to take the exam this week, according to a Newsday survey of public school districts ending Thursday, the third and final day of the assessment.

With 106 of the Island’s 124 districts responding, 87,899 of 170,733 eligible students in grades three through eight boycotted the exam — 51.5 percent.

In Nassau, 32,854 of 74,390 eligible students, or 44.2 percent, opted out of the test. In Suffolk, 55,045 of 96,343 students, or 57.1 percent, refused.

The English exam, also known as the ELA, was given Tuesday through Thursday. Next week, students in grades three through eight statewide are slated to take the state math test during portions of three days, Wednesday through Friday.

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia will continue speaking with parents and educators in support of the tests and changes the state has made to the exams, spokeswoman Jeanne Beattie said Thursday.

“The decision of whether a student should take the state assessments is ultimately for that student’s parent or parents to make,” Beattie said. “But we want to be certain that everyone has all of the information they need to make an informed decision. So the commissioner is going to continue to speak with parents, teachers, students and the public to explain the improvements we’ve made to the state assessments and the importance of these tests in helping educators.”

The Education Department did not have statewide refusal numbers available Thursday.

Patchogue-Medford Superintendent Michael J. Hynes, an outspoken critic of the tests’ implementation and other state-driven education reforms, called the boycott “an indictment” of the state Education Department, saying “it shows how much the parents do not trust this agency at all.

“In order to regain everyone’s trust, SED needs to start everything from scratch,” Hynes said.

He said he expects Long Island’s opt-out numbers to be the highest of any region in the state — both for the ELA and math — and predicted that refusals on the math exam will top the 100,000 mark on the Island alone.

In other regions of the state, about 22 percent of eligible students in Westchester, Rockland and Putnam counties refused to take the English test, according to news reports, while opt-outs in the Buffalo area ranged from 35 percent to 71 percent.

Last April, 100 districts responded to Newsday’s survey on the final day of ELA testing, with 43.6 percent of eligible students refusing to take the test. At that time, 64,785 of 148,564 eligible students in those districts boycotted the exam, and the refusal percentages by county were 36.4 percent in Nassau and 49.2 percent in Suffolk.

The Board of Regents, the state’s education policy-making body, this year lessened the number of exam questions and put in place a four-year moratorium so that test scores cannot be used punitively against students or teachers, whose performance evaluations are by law linked to the test results. Those actions and other changes resulted from a task force convened by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in response to public outcry.

This is the fourth year of test refusals linked to state-driven education reforms. Anti-testing activists said the opt-outs sent a clear message to Cuomo, the Regents and the state Education Department: The tests and curricula aligned with the Common Core academic standards must be completely retooled.

A Cuomo administration official noted Thursday that federal law requires annual testing to ensure that educators can track progress of subgroups, schools and districts so that students do not fall through the cracks. The new federal Every Student Succeeds Act, was endorsed by more than 35 civil rights organizations to ensure high standards and accountability for the progress of all students, the official said.

The new federal law replaced the No Child Left Behind law, enacted under former President George W. Bush.

On Wednesday in Buffalo, Cuomo told reporters that the opt-out movement is more than a New York issue, and extends nationally. He repeated his earlier position that the state’s rollout of curricula and tests aligned with the Common Core academic standards was rushed, that teachers were not prepared and there is too much testing in general.

The governor noted that the Education Department has been taking steps to communicate with educators and parents about changes made to the exams.

The Common Core’s implementation in New York was done more quickly and in a much broader fashion, without any pilot programs, than in most states. That effort was promoted by Cuomo, the state Board of Regents and former Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. — who now is secretary of the U.S. Education Department.

Thursday afternoon, Center Moriches Superintendent Russell Stewart called on the education community to seek a resolution. In that Suffolk district, 434 of 722 eligible students — 60.1 percent — boycotted the English exam, according to numbers the district sent to Newsday.

“Our focus continues to be on student learning and the need to implement highly effective instruction daily,” Stewart said. “Despite the importance of assessments, if student results are inconclusive, the testing days will not have a productive educational impact. The opt-out movement presents challenges. However, we must come together as an educational community — administrators, teachers, parents — and resolve this issue for the benefit of our children.”

In spring 2015, an estimated 200,000 students statewide — more than 70,000 of them on Long Island — refused to take state tests in English and math, the largest such boycott in the nation. The year before that, nearly 9,500 students opted out, according to the Newsday survey on the final day of ELA testing in April 2014. In the 2013 testing, a small group of a few hundred students, mainly in Rockville Centre, declined to take the tests.

The leaders of High Achievement New York, a Manhattan-based advocacy group of civil rights and business organizations, said this week’s boycott showed “no measurable increase in opt-outs this year.”

“In fact, areas across the state are seeing a rise in students opting in,” the group said in a statement. Upstate districts such as Fairport and Chateaugay increased their participation by 14 percent and 27 percent, respectively, and the number of students taking the test improved in 15 of 16 districts in the Rochester area, the organization said.

Robert Dillon, superintendent of Nassau BOCES, said Thursday that if Elia “continues to communicate and communicate, I think she has a real good shot at turning this thing around.”

But Jeanette Deutermann, a North Bellmore parent and founder of Long Island Opt Out, said she was looking at numbers across the state and “we are much higher than we were last year at the end of day three.”

On Long Island, Comsewogue was the district with the highest test-refusal percentage — nearly 86 percent. Most districts that also responded to last year’s Newsday survey showed a jump in refusals this year.

“We don’t need to use the testing instrument in the way it’s being utilized: to rank and sort teachers and kids. That’s not going to make for a better outcome,” said David Gamberg, who is superintendent of the Greenport and Southold districts.

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