Welcome to another annual rite of spring: the state exams for grades three through eight. Students took the English Language Arts exam last week. The math test will be given in early May. The tests are required by the federal Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015.
Over the past four years, “opting out,” or refusing to take the tests, has become a movement, especially on Long Island, among students and their parents. The overall opt-out rate in Nassau and Suffolk counties for the ELA exams was 49.1 percent last year. In 2017 it was 51.6 percent, in 2016 it was 51.6 percent and in 2015 it was 42.6 percent.
In Levittown, Seaford and Wantagh, the opt-out rates were among the highest in the state last year. Some 66.5 percent of Levittown and Wantagh students opted out of the ELA test, while 67.5 percent of students sat out in Seaford. Rates were even higher for the math tests: 78.5 percent of students opted out in Wantagh, compared with 80.7 percent in Seaford and 86.9 percent in Levittown.
The reasons for sitting out the exams range from parents and teachers complaining that they are poorly designed and don’t benefit the students, to children feeling pressure to perform and becoming anxiety-ridden.
New York State United Teachers, the statewide union, believes that the test results do not accurately reflect student success, because more than half of the test takers are labeled as failing — yet some 80 percent statewide go on to graduate from high school. NYSUT has called the test results “useless, but also damaging to students.”
So what’s the point of the tests? With so much being spent — $44 million through 2019-20 for the contract with Questar Inc., which administers them — couldn’t the State Education Department use that money more wisely? Clearly, change is desperately needed.
Bellmore resident Jeanette Deutermann, a leader in the opt-out movement, has said the exams must be overhauled, or replaced with the National Assessment of Educational Progress program or project-based assessments. To counter the opt-out movement, state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia has traveled across New York in the past four years, listening to the concerns of parents and educators. Elia said she believed the tests help ensure that students are learning, and are on track to graduate from high school with the necessary skills, while showing whether schools are moving forward with the approved learning standards and teachers are developing the skills they need to impart the necessary knowledge to their students.
Hewlett-Woodmere School District officials said that they recognize the anxiety these exams create for students, teachers and parents. Officials say they respect the decisions students make to take or opt out of the tests, and emphasize that the tests are just one of several measures they use to gauge student performance and progress. Rockville Centre Superintendent Dr. William Johnson called last year’s exam scores “hardly interpretable” because of the number of students who opted out.
In a March 28 letter to administrators and teachers, Elia highlighted six changes to this year’s exams. There are fewer questions and testing sessions. Teachers have written the questions and selected them for the exams. The tests are not timed. And parents will be given greater access to test information.
These are all important changes. But the state has to show why the exams are important. Just saying that they are vital to assessing students’ educational progress isn’t enough. More must be done to justify the tests’ importance. Schools should be shown how to use the data to enhance learning, as strongly advocated by Lawrence Superintendent Dr. Ann Pedersen, who said she believed the tests provide important information on grade-to-grade improvement in students’ academic performance.
At the same time, the state must get its act together when it comes to computer-assisted testing. Last week, when a relatively small group of students took the tests by computer, the system crashed, adding another black mark to the testing program.
If the State Education Department’s mission is to “raise the knowledge, skill and opportunity of all the people in New York,” as it states, then it should lead the way in making its testing more relevant to the lives of students and their families.