Opt outs increase for state math exams

James Galloway

One week after hundreds of North Shore students sat out the state English Language Arts exam, test refusal figures jumped even higher for the state’s math exam in a sign the opt-out movement continues to pick up steam.

More than 2,200 students, or about 14.7 percent, opted out of the English exam administered to grades three through eight two weeks ago, between the Herricks, Mineola, East Williston, Great Neck, Roslyn, Manhasset, Port Washington, New Hyde Park-Garden City Park and Sewanhaka school districts.

But for the math exam, North Shore opt outs swelled to 21.9 percent as more than 2,600 students from the same districts refused the test, a trend that was largely consistent across Nassau County.

“I think the [opt-out] movement is like a snowball rolling down a hill: It’s gaining momentum as social media and the press pick up on it,” said Mineola Superintendent Michael Nagler, whose district’s opt outs rose to 20.9 percent for the math exam from 18.3 percent for the English.

Statewide, at least 193,000 students opted out of the English exam. And, with less than half of school districts reporting, math exam opt outs already exceed 150,000, according to figures from the anti-testing advocacy group NYS Allies for Public Education.  

Across Long Island, 46.5 percent of students opted out of the math exam, according to figures compiled by Newsday — and many districts in eastern Suffolk reported opt-out rates in excess of 50 percent, with Comsewogue leading the way at 83.5 percent.

Even as opt-out numbers increased across the North Shore, the extent varied greatly: Sewanhaka saw the highest increase as opt outs spiked from about 20 percent for the English exam to 32.7 percent for the math, with 774 students refusing the test.

“Statewide, I think the opt-out movement had a greater influence this year than in the past,” Sewanhaka Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Cheryl Champ said. “I think that’s largely due to social media. I think it’s also because the test has been tied to [teacher] evaluations.”

The opt-out rate in Manhasset, on the other hand, nearly doubled from 3.6 to 6 percent, but with an increase of 2.4 percent, it still ranks among the districts with the lowest opt-out rates on Long Island.  

Still, Manhasset Superintendent Charles Cardillo, remains critical of the exams, saying they require “substantive changes.”

Only in Roslyn — the North Shore district with the highest opt-out rate for the English exam at 32.5 percent — did math opt outs remain flat, with 401 of 1,234 students refusing the test.

In a statement, the district said its philosophy is “it is a parent’s right and decision to opt out if they so choose.”

“It is our obligation as a district to administer the exams, which we do according to the directives of the state,” the statement said.

Most North Shore districts saw an increase of about 5 percent: New Hyde Park-Garden City Park had 283 students, or 28.8 percent, opt out of the math exam, up from 23.8 percent for the English. In Herricks, 18.2 percent of students sat out the math exam, up from 12.9 for the English.

“I think that the word spread,” Herricks Superintendent John Bierwirth said about the surge in opt-outs.

East Williston’s opt-out rate climbed by 3 percent to 24.4 percent, with 170 students refusing the math exam. Great Neck had about 400 of 2,700 eligible students — 15 percent — sit out the math exam, an increase of 5 percent overall.  

Great Neck Superintendent Tom Dolan, who like many administrators is critical of the exams, said the opt-out numbers send a “strong message to the governor, our elected officials and the [New York State Education Department] about future courses of action.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo drew the ire of parents, educators and administrators with his proposal to base 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation on standardized test scores, saying current subjective evaluations let poor teachers skate by. The state would also use test scores to identify failing schools under his proposal.

But Cuomo dropped the 50 percent idea due to the backlash during state budget negotiations, and instead deferred to the state Education Department to establish revised evaluation criteria, which will still incorporate test scores in some fashion — tests most administrators call deeply flawed.

“I don’t like the state exams. I’ve said this over and over, I don’t think it’s a fair representation of what students know, and I hate that we judge the success of the school district based on one test,” Mineola’s Nagler said. “That’s not how you judge a school. That’s not how you judge teachers.”

The state teachers’ unions jumped into the mix as testing season approached, funding an advertising blitz against the governor’s education and testing agendas. The president of New York State United Teachers, which represents teachers outside New York City, also went on record saying she supported students opting out, contributing to the hype and granting the movement legitimacy.

“I think [the opt outs are] clearly a rejection of the heavy emphasis placed on high-stakes testing,” said Mark Jacobs, the Nassau County regional staff director for NYSUT. “When you have nearly half the kids opting out of a test, it’s clearly a statement that [parents] are unhappy with the direction it’s going in.”

He added that the union expected a bump in math opt outs, and a similar bump occurred last year, though on a smaller scale.

“We assumed that there would be an increase simply because I think that parents who may not have opted their children out for the ELA assessment that the number of parents who are doing it said ‘maybe I should do it to,’ ” he said.

But school officials say the high opt-out rates have added a new layer of complication for the state, which must determine how to evaluate teachers using test data that is incomplete.

“If we curb our obsession with some of our state exams as the only valid indicator of success of the school, then the [opt-out] movement, I would say, is successful,” Nagler said. “But my fear is that teacher scores are going to go down because a smaller pool of children took the exam. You aren’t selecting who’s not taking the test — the teacher isn’t doing that — so it’s very haphazard, and that’s not reflected in your score.”

Adam Lidgett and Bill San Antonio contributed reporting.

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