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Test refusal rates climb by double digits in nearly all local schools across North Fork

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More and more parents across the North Fork are saying, “My child is more than a test score.”

Refusal rates rose in all but one school district on the North Fork this week, as state English Language Arts tests were administered to students in grades 3-8.

The grassroots movement to protest the testing continues to gain steam locally and is reflected in the growing numbers of parents who have opted their children out of taking the controversial tests. Each year since 2014 the total number of students in North Fork districts who have opted out of taking the tests has increased. In 2014, for example, 219 students refused to sit for the test. That number increased to 1,205 in 2015 and 1,442 in 2016.

Greenport Schools led the North Fork in refusal rates, with 65 percent of students opting out, up from 61 percent last year. Refusal rates were up by double digits in Oysterponds, Mattituck-Cutchogue and Riverhead, and down by 1 percent in Southold.

2016 ELA refusals % 2015 ELA refusals % 2014 ELA refusals (percentage not given)
Greenport Union Free School District 181 65% 165 61% 16
Mattituck-Cutchogue Union Free School District 244 48.2% 197 36% 43
New Suffolk Common School District no data reported no data reported no data reported
Oysterponds Union Free School District 13 34% 7 20% no data reported
Riverhead Central School District 805 39.3% 622 26% 59
Southold Union Free School District 199 55% 214 59% 101
Total Refusals 1442 1205 219

“This speaks volumes to the deep-seated problems with how education is being driven in New York State,” Greenport and Southold schools Superintendent David Gamberg said yesterday. “This level of dissatisfaction and concern with what is the driving force behind educational policy — the overuse of standardized testing to rank and sort students and teachers is unprecedented,” he said.

Riverhead School Superintendent Nancy Carney sees value in “annual state assessments in determining how students are doing throughout the state in comparison with their peers.”

“They can be meaningful if educators know the content and standards by which students will be measured. They can be meaningful to determine if curriculum needs to updated or revised. I think the roll-out of assessing students on new standards before they had been fully integrated into the curriculum, tying teacher and principal evaluation to these assessments, and creating a high stakes accountability system based on one assessment created the current mess,” Carney said.

“Even though the state has listened to parents’ and educators’ concerns and frustration at the flawed implementation of new standards and assessments, and even though the state is in the process of revising the standards and assessments, there is still a lack of trust that there will be meaningful change,” Carney said.

Lack of flexibility in the assessments, particularly for students with disabilities and English as a New Language learners, continues to frustrate the Riverhead superintendent, she said.

Mattituck-Cutchogue Superintendent Dr. Anne Smith agreed that parent distrust continues to run high “in spite of the recent efforts of the new commissioner and the Board of Regents.”

Parents and educators alike have criticized the tests as not developmentally age-appropriate or containing test passages that are sometimes two or three grade levels above the grade in which the test is being given. The tests do not give an accurate picture of student achievement, they argue, and are poorly designed and much too long. They complain that much of the school year is spent prepping students by “teaching to the test.”

One North Fork parent of a second-grader said she is already considering opting him out of testing next year. “We feel that there seems to be too much stress put on the tests, both for the students and teachers,” she said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “With so much focus on the testing a lot of important aspects of school are left out. Schools need to be a place to foster all aspects of learning, educational and emotional.”

Another parent in Riverhead explained her decision to opt-out her child this way: “The amazing teachers my family has developed relationships with shouldn’t be penalized negatively by lower scores. These children are our future and they’re being set up to fail by these rigid, time-consuming tests.”

On top of these concerns come complaints about even more instruction time lost to test days, when students who refuse the tests must sit quietly and read while the tests are administered.

In Greenport and Southold, students who refuse the test are placed in an alternate location and may read a book. In Riverhead, they are “permitted to sit and read quietly” in the classroom, Carney said.

“Clearly, this is not a good situation in terms of using time for instructional purposes, particularly when it takes place over multiple days for both Math and ELA,” Gamberg said.

School administrators are left wondering about the impact the high opt-out rates themselves may have, worrying that federal and state funding may be withheld to penalize districts with high refusal numbers.

N.Y. State Education Commissioner Mary Ellen Elia has said her agency has had discussions with federal regulators about possible sanctions for districts with high opt-out rates.

April Pokorny
April is a writer, reporter and copy editor for the LOCAL news websites. She is a retired educator and proud grandma. April lives in Calverton. Email April