By Lamia Choudhury and Desiree D’Iorio
Two Long Island school districts reported having the highest opt out rates statewide for last spring’s standardized tests in English and math.
New York State administers the test for students in grades three to eight to evaluate teacher performance. Bellmore-Merrick school district reported 70 percent of students in grades three through eight opted out of taking the tests while Comsewogue reported 90 percent, according to data collected by Newsday. Long Island’s overall opt out rate is 49.1 percent and New York State’s is 23 percent.
LI Opt Out was founded by a Bellmore school district parent and activist, Jeannette Deutermann. She believes the test does more harm than good to the students and is glad to see opt out rates rising.
“The first piece is taking back the classroom,” Deutermann said about eliminating the link between student performance on the test and teacher evaluations.
Students are now able to opt out from the beginning of the school year. “Knowing the number of test-takers in advance lets teachers refocus their attention on students’ needs,” Deutermann said. “What they’re able to do is focus on the curriculum for the child, not gear to the test,” she said. “They can be the professionals they’re hired to be.”
The Comsewogue School District in Suffolk County had the highest opt out rate at 90.3 percent. Deutermann says that’s because Superintendent Joseph Rella is honest with parents about test requirements, a message supported by the school boards, teachers’ unions and parent leaders. “Fearless honesty is key,” Deutermann said.
“Dr. Rella’s philosophy is that parents have the right to make the decisions for their own child,” Dr. Jennifer Quinn, Comsewogue School District Deputy Superintendent, said.
Experts connect Long Island’s high opt out rate to the wealth the schools are provided with as well as access to resources.
“We have an educated populace here that’s very involved in education,” Dr. Terry Earley, a 31-year veteran of the Connetquot Central School District who also teaches Educational Leadership at Stony Brook University, said. “People pay high taxes for education here. Parents are not going to sit back when they see kids getting stressed out.”
Saifa C. lives in Bellerose, a crossroads between Queens and Long Island where median household income is about $40,000 less than on Long Island. She asked to be identified by her first name only. Ayaan C., her 11-year-old son, attends a public school there that she was not comfortable disclosing.
“I think we are going to have him take the test this year,” Saifa said. “We opted out last year and I think he may have missed out on something. I don’t think the testing would be bad.”
“I don’t get the point of the testing,” Ayaan said. When he didn’t take the test last year, he and peers who had also opted out were taken to another classroom where they watched a movie.
“New York City doesn’t have high opt out rates like ours and it’s because of fear,” Deutermann said. “Parents are being threatened that their kids won’t go on to the next grade [if they don’t take standardized tests] and that’s ridiculous.”
“If a student doesn’t take the test in a year before and then takes it later, there’s no point because then there’s no benchmark to see any improvement,” Bruno Bernardino, assistant principal at Dawnwood Middle School, said.
It’s not clear how the large number of students opting out will affect teacher evaluations in the future. Dr. Quinn said Comsewogue’s teacher evaluation process involves three parts: the standardized test, a local test to measure student growth and classroom observations.
Dr. Earley suggested districts might go back to the old teacher evaluation system used before the tests. “An administrator might come in to do an evaluation, maybe a peer review, too. Sometimes parents give input for evaluations.”
Jeanne Beattie, a spokesperson for the State Education Department said the evaluation process is under review.