Did more outspoken leadership play a role in ‘opt out’ results?

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School districts whose leaders have been most outspoken in opposing New York’s direction with public education saw more students refuse last week’s assessments, a Suffolk Times analysis has found.

In the Shoreham-Wading River School District, 823 students declined to take last week’s English Language Arts exams. That’s more than 73 percent of the 1,127 third- through eighth-graders in that district who are required to take the tests. It’s also the highest rate of refusal among all schools across Riverhead and Southold towns.

Greenport and Southold schools ranked second and third, with 61 percent and 59 percent of students refusing the tests, respectively.

For the past few years, parents and educators have rallied against the state’s new system of so-called high-stakes testing, which is tied to the controversial Common Core Standards, through a movement known as “opt out.” Two area superintendents, Steven Cohen of Shoreham-Wading River and David Gamberg of the Southold and Greenport districts, have led the local effort to counter the state’s mandates.

Both superintendents sent letters home to parents about this year’s exam explaining that “there is no penalty for students” when parents opt them out of state testing. The letters also outlined procedures for parents to follow if they didn’t want their children to take the assessments. The Southold and Shoreham-Wading River school boards have also passed several resolutions in recent years expressing displeasure with high-stakes testing. In another example of outspokenness against the state’s education reform agenda, Mr. Gamberg organized a March 2014 forum called “Public Education at a Crossroads,” held at Stony Brook University’s Wang Center, at which Dr. Cohen was a guest speaker.

This is Mr. Gamberg’s first year at the helm of the Greenport School District, which passed no equivalent resolutions in 2013-14 and had one of that year’s lowest opt-out rates, with 35 out of 269 students declining ELA tests. This year, under the new administration, the number of eligible Greenport students refusing the ELA exam ballooned to 165 out of 270, the largest year-over-year increase at any North Fork school.

When asked what accounted for the dramatic jump in refusals and whether this year’s letter to parents had been a factor, Mr. Gamberg said he wasn’t sure about the cause, but didn’t believe the letter had made a significant difference.

“Other districts in Suffolk County where no letter was sent out had between 65 to 70 percent opt-outs,” he wrote in an email. “I think this is a growing phenomenon, as evidenced in all of the media coverage.”

[Dr. Cohen and Mr. Gamberg’s column: How the ‘opt-out’ movement continues to grow]

Based on polling of about 80 percent of Long Island school districts, Newsday reported that about 65,000 students refused to take the state ELA exams last week. That’s about 43.6 percent of the eligible student population in those districts. Last year, according to Newsday’s figures, about 9,500 students in 67 districts refused ELA assessments.

Despite the high opt-out numbers, state education department spokesman Jonathan Burman wrote in an email that he’s confident his department will still be able to “generate a representative sample of students who took the test, generate valid scores for anyone who took the test and calculate valid state-provided growth scores to be used in teacher evaluations.”

“The U.S. Department of Education has made clear that when a district fails to ensure that students participate in required state assessments, the state education agency is expected to consider imposing sanctions on that district, including — in the most egregious cases — withholding programmatic funds,” Mr. Burman continued. “What sanctions to impose must be decided on a case by case basis, taking into account the degree and length of time the district has failed to meet participation rate requirements and the reasons for such failure.

”However, the real impact of opting out is that we lose the chance — at both the state and the local level — to learn about the progress of our students and their schools. That loss is immediate and it is permanent,” he added.

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In Riverhead and Mattituck, test refusal rates increased over last year, but not as much as in neighboring districts.

Riverhead School District superintendent Nancy Carney and Mattituck-Cutchogue superintendent Anne Smith have also criticized the rushed implementation of the new standards. And, like Shoreham-Wading River and Southold, both school boards have passed several resolutions protesting high-stakes testing.

But neither of those districts sent letters home to parents explaining the test refusal process. And while ELA test refusal numbers significantly increased in both districts — by 35 percent in Mattituck and 26 percent in Riverhead — the amounts weren’t as big of a jump over the last year compared to Greenport, Southold and Shoreham-Wading River.

Mattituck school board president Jerry Diffley said he believes the latest refusal numbers indicate that the opt-out movement is going to continue. As a result, he questions the validity of the assessment portion of a teacher’s evaluation.

“Spending so much time on preparing for the test concerns me,” he said. “If we truly value the education process, then we should let teachers teach.”

During an April 14 Riverhead school board meeting, parents criticized the district for not being as outspoken as others that experienced a higher rate of test refusals.

Ms. Carney said that while she understands parents’ frustration about the implementation of Common Core and opposes high-stakes testing, she sees a positive side to the state assessments.

“It’s the only assessment we have that lets us know how our students are doing compared to other students around the state,” she said. “I respect all of the parents’ opinions. We respect parents’ requests. I also take an oath, as does the board, that we will abide by the regulations of the commissioner of education — and one of those regulations is that we administer state assessments every year.”

State math assessments are in progress this week.

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