Students opting out of standardized tests on the rise

Riverhead superintendent Nancy Carney, left, and Shoreham-Wading River Superintendent Steven Cohen.

Amid increasingly intense scrutiny of standardized testing as a means of improving teacher and student performance, the opt-out movement — which encourages refusal to take the tests used to measure New York’s educators — appears to be gaining some traction locally. This year, in the Riverhead and Shoreham-Wading River districts, and at the Riverhead Charter School, more parents than ever before are refusing to let their children sit for the upcoming state assessments. 

Shoreham-Wading River is seeing the biggest bump in numbers, as parents and educators statewide continue to protest so-called high-stakes testing tied to the controversial Common Core State Standards.

In that district, parents of 118 students in grades 3 through 8 have already said their children will not sit for the English Language Arts tests, scheduled for April 1-3, and the math assessments, set for April 30-May 2. Last year, only 25 students opted out of the tests.

Shoreham-Wading River Superintendent Steven Cohen has been one of the more outspoken opponents of Common Core among regional school district leaders. He and fellow superintendents David Gamberg of Southold and Michael Hynes of Shelter Island recently hosted a forum at Stony Brook University where international scholars discussed alternatives to more state-mandated tests to educate kids in the modern age.

Within the opt-out movement, concern has risen about what’s being referred to as “sit and stare” — meaning that students who do not sit for a test would be made to just stare at a desk while tests are administered to others, rather than be allowed to read a book or move to another classroom.

Each of the local superintendents said such practices would not happen in their districts.

Mr. Cohen said it was impossible to pinpoint exactly why more students are opting out of the tests.

“Children don’t have to verbally refuse,” he said. “Children don’t have to refuse anything.”

He also said there wouldn’t be any academic repercussions for students who do not take the exams.

Riverhead School District Superintendent Nancy Carney explained that last year, the state required teachers to place an assessment in front of each student and that students had to verbally refuse to take the exam.

That’s not the case this year, she said.

Ms. Carney said last week that 25 Riverhead students weren’t planning to take the assessments — up from just seven last year. Fifteen of the children who will not take the assessments this year attend Riley Avenue Elementary School, Ms. Carney said.

Riverhead district students who refuse to take the exams will be taken to another room, if space allows, or be given a book to read during the tests, she said.

Ms. Carney has expressed support for the standards themselves, while at the same time voicing concerns about the state’s rollout of rigorous new academic goals.

“It’s a shame the state implemented the standards this way,” she said. “If they took a slower approach, teachers would have had the time to embrace the standards” while getting to know and master the accompanying curriculum.

Riverhead Charter School executive director and principal Raymond Ankrum said this week that five students there would not be taking the assessment, up from two students last year.

Mr. Ankrum said he believes increased awareness through last year’s public forums may have contributed to the growing number of students choosing to opt out. He added that he’s concerned about the state’s implementation of Common Core.

“Last year, we had seventh-graders tested as if they’ve had six years of Common Core instruction,” he said. “The state needs to roll the standards out through incremental steps.”

The standards were created by nonprofit organizations, including the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, in an attempt to better prepare students in each state for college and post-high school careers.

The federal government incentivized adoption of the Common Core at the state level through its Race to the Top grants program, which garnered New York State $700 million that was then distributed, in part, to school districts. The state directed all New York school districts to develop their own teacher evaluation systems tied to assessments, known as annual professional performance reviews plan (APPR), lest the districts risk losing state aid.

The state Department of Education has been heavily criticized by school officials across New York for pushing the new mandates before districts were ready for them. Though many educators embraced Common Core when it was first introduced, they’ve since demanded the state hold off on implementing the new student assessments based on Common Core and the APPR plan until the rigorous curriculum is properly implemented inside the classroom.

Earlier this month, the Democrat-controlled state Assembly passed legislation calling for a two-year moratorium on teacher evaluations tied to student scores and a one-year delay for the state education department to share student information with third-party data company — another highly controversial component of the initiative.

Following the vote, federal officials warned that New York’s Race to the Top grant could be yanked if the state failed to continue using test scores to rate teachers.

Assemblyman Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk), who is pushing for a three–year moratorium on the entire Common Core program, described the federal grant as “a drop in the bucket” compared to the state’s $142 billion annual budget.

“That’s less than 1 percent,” he said. “The rollout has cost $2.7 billion and schools have borne those costs.”

Congressman Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) has not had much to say about Common Core and declined to comment this week through a spokesperson.

Its detractors, however, have had a lot to say. And they don’t appear to be letting up.

Beth Dimino, president of the Port Jefferson Station Teachers Association and an eighth-grade science teacher at JFK Middle School, has helped organize a Long Island-wide “I Refuse Rally” — to be held Saturday, March 29, at Comsewogue High School — to protest the upcoming state assessments.

“The Common Core is abusive to children,” Ms. Dimino said. “[Opting out] is gaining momentum. I believe there will be far more mothers and fathers who will choose to opt their children out of these exams.”

As for local parents who have made that choice, Ellen Kaspar said she’s not going to let her third-grade son sit for the tests this year after witnessing the anxiety her older son, then in eighth grade, experienced last spring.

Her biggest concern, which she took to a recent Shoreham-Wading River school board meeting, had to do with the possibility of academic repercussions.

Mr. Cohen assured her there would be none.

“Had I known last year, I would have had my son opt out,” Ms. Kaspar said.

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