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Charter school principal attributes higher scores to opt-in atmosphere

Assessment results for students at the Riverhead Charter School show proficiency rates of 34 percent on English Language Arts tests taken in April 2016 — a 12 percent improvement — and a slight increase to 33 percent proficiency in math, according to the state Department of Education.

Test scores improved overall across the state, with an average of 38 percent of public school students scoring proficient in both the ELA and math.

This year, for the first time since April 2013, when the state mandated the controversial Common Core standardized testing, the annual ELA and math assessments were untimed and had fewer questions.

In December, the state Board of Regents, which drafts education guidelines for New York public schools, also responded to high-stakes testing concerns by adopting a four-year moratorium on using student scores to evaluate teachers and principals.

“We all agree that the way Common Core was unveiled was done horribly,” explained charter school principal Raymond Ankrum, “but continuing to use that as an excuse — instead of digging in and getting our hands dirty for students and families — isn’t something that we’ll do. Our scores are proof that students can perform on high-stakes testing.”

Mr. Ankrum said another reason student test scores improved is that his administration has encouraged students to sit for the mandated exams, an approach many superintendents, educators and parents across the state have not embraced.

Just 31 of the 220 charter school students in grades 3-8 — or 14 percent — declined to sit for the exams, a decision commonly referred to as “opting out.”

That opt-out rate was less than those of neighboring schools. Across the North Fork, 51 percent of 4,543 test-eligible students refused to take ELA exams and 49 percent of 4,657 declined to sit for math exams.

“I totally get why parents opt out of testing — that’s their choice to do so,” Mr. Ankrum said. “However, to say opting out of testing is going to solve generational poverty — or to say opting out of testing isn’t going to promote racial divide — is us operating under extreme negligence and false pretense.”

The principal said 51 percent of the charter school’s nearly 400 students are from the Riverhead school district. In a presentation Mr. Ankrum created that compares students with disabilities, black, Hispanic and economically disadvantaged students collectively, he noted the charter school’s proficiency rates were significantly higher than Riverhead’s. According to the state Department of Education website, the charter school achieved a 29 percent proficiency rate with those subgroups in ELA and a 28 percent proficiency in math, compared to 10 and 13 percent, respectively, in the Riverhead school district.

Riverhead school district Superintendent Nancy Carney didn’t immediately respond to a request seeking comment on the comparison. The state has designated Riverhead as a Focus District because students in these subcategories failed to show improvement in their 2015 assessments.

Mr. Ankrum said he hopes to see continued improvement in the charter school’s test results. Among the ways the school plans to accomplish this is by hiring teachers who have taught in other charter schools and by using “key identifiers” from day one to begin helping students with weaknesses.

“Our mindset from the very start of this school year was to place trust in our teachers,” he said. “By allowing teachers to be creative and not subscribe to one particular curricular choice, teachers were allowed to pull from a variety of resources to meet the needs of our diverse student base.”

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