Testing opt-out numbers trending down, but remain high

Most North Fork school districts saw a slight decline in the number of students opting out of this year’s English Language Arts exam, according to data collected from administrators and Newsday surveys over the past three weeks.

But the uproar against standardized testing persists in Suffolk County, which has produced some of the highest student opt-out rates in the state.

The ELA exam was administered to students in grades 3 through 8 April 2–3, with make-up exams April 4–5 and 8–9. 

In the Southold School District, 47% of eligible students opted out of the test compared to 59% last year. In neighboring Greenport, 71% of students opted out, down from 82% last year. 

The rate was unchanged in the Mattituck-Cutchogue School District, where 39% of students, the same as last year, opted out. The Oysterponds district saw a 30% opt-out rate, a decrease from last year’s 51%. 

Riverhead Central School District posted a 24% opt-out rate, a decrease since last year’s 31%. The rate dropped by 2% from last year, from 79% to 77%, in the Shoreham-Wading River district. 

Local declines mirror those across Long Island — which had an overall opt-out rate of roughly 50% last year and roughly 48% this year, according to Jeanette Deutermann, founder of Long Island Opt-Out.

This year, new federal test score regulations contained in the Every Student Success Act prompted the New York State Education Department to modify state regulations for test taking.

A district’s accountability status is determined, in part, by the actual number of ELA scores it reports, which is compared to the total number of students eligible to take the test, Ms. Deutermann said. 

“The way that the Education Department wrote the regulations for New York, they tried to make it so that opting out would penalize the district,” she said. “It makes the district look like they’re struggling when, in fact, they’re not.”

Greenport schools, which had maintained opt-out percentages in the low 80s for the past two years, received a “comprehensive support and improvement school” designation in 2018 from the state education department. 

Southold and Greenport Superintendent David Gamberg, a vocal proponent of the opt-out movement since its inception, said that because state regulations continue to change, it’s not reliable to use ELA scores to track student and school performance. In addition, he said, it removes critical thinking from student assessment. 

Ms. Deutermann said higher-needs districts, some of which fall on the accountability list, see lower refusal rates due to fear tactics applied by the state Department of Education. 

“Parents in those districts are continuously being threatened that their schools are going to close and they’re underfunded,” she said. “It keeps parents from feeling confident enough to push back against the test.”

Last year in Riverhead Central School District, the middle school and Roanoke Avenue Elementary School were given CSI status — and both showed declines in recent opt-out rate from last year’s 31%.

In December 2018, Riverhead Superintendent Aurelia Henriquez announced that the high school, along with and Phillips Avenue and Riley Avenue elementary schools, had been removed from the state “focus” list and deemed “in good standing.” Pulaski Street School was removed from CSI status and was instead labeled a “targeted support and improvement school.”

Language barriers, Ms. Deutermann said, can also contribute to refusal rates. 

“It’s unfair that white, English-speaking parents have the freedom and information to opt out without fear,” she said. “Why is it that I have more of a right, or access, when another parent that might speak Spanish doesn’t?” 

For the past two years, some districts volunteered to administer the ELA online — and once again saw some malfunctions.

Lisa Rudley, volunteer executive director of NY Allies for Public Education, said infrastructure has not improved since last year’s mechanical problems. In some districts, computers timed-out or failed to submit student responses. 

Fourth-graders taking the ELA in Mattituck experienced both malfunctions, Superintendent Jill Gierasch said at the district’s April 17 school board meeting, which meant it took longer for them to complete the exam. Ms. Gierasch later encouraged students to participate in the exam as it provides insight for students and the district.

State math exams for students in grades 3-8 will be administered May 1-2, with make-up exams on May 3 and May 6-8.

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