*Not all districts responded to the Newsday survey

With Common Core exams, opt-out movement faces new test of strength


Published: April 4, 2016

April 2016 marked the fourth spring of Common Core testing in New York since the grassroots rebellion called “the opt-out movement” burst onto the scene.

Once again, record numbers of students in Long Island’s public schools refused to take state exams in English language arts and math — a protest fueled by parents’ and educators’ protests against the tests, their linkage to teacher and principal performance evaluations and other education reforms.

And once again, the boycott reverberated across New York, cementing the state’s position as the place where the nation’s largest such boycotts have occurred.

On Long Island, 89,036 students in grades 3-8 opted out of the English language arts test, often called the ELA, according to a Newsday survey that drew responses from 108 of the 124 districts in Nassau and Suffolk counties. That was more than half of those eligible in the Island’s public schools to take the exam, given April 5-7.

The boycott was similarly large in Nassau and Suffolk when the state math test was given April 13-15. Refusing to take that exam were 87,796 students in grades 3-8 — 52.8 percent of those eligible — in the 106 districts that responded to Newsday’s survey.

A statewide count by boycott leaders, based largely on news accounts, indicated that more than 178,000 students sat out tests, with about half of all districts counted.

There is no state agency or official organization that gathers the data and makes it public on the actual days the ELA and math tests are administered.

After this spring’s tests, the state Board of Regents, which sets education policy, launched an inquiry into the validity of the state test system and its links to teacher evaluations, citing the need to rebuild public trust.

— Joie Tyrrell

Use the arrows to the right of each section to navigate through this project.

Common questions

Why is there controversy over Common Core?

Many educators initially supported the Common Core standards, saying that if implemented appropriately, they had the potential to improve student learning. In New York and elsewhere, testing associated with the Common Core has drawn strong criticism, with some parents arguing the exams are flawed and age-inappropriate and do not provide a valid diagnostic tool. Others have said passing rates set for the exams are unrealistic. Opponents of the tests also say they are not properly aligned with the curriculum, and that teachers are not allowed to discuss the test content with parents or even colleagues.

Some also have argued that a Common Core-aligned curriculum is a federal imposition, and that state and local educational standards work best.

Proponents, such as High Achievement New York, a coalition of education, business and civic groups, say that tests tied to the Common Core standards are a solid measure to evaluate progress toward students’ college and career readiness.

The tests are considered an annual “checkup,” they say, to ensure all kids are making progress, provide teachers and schools more information, and offer a common measure that can be used to help close the achievement gap affecting minority students.

Many education experts have said New York State’s Education Department rushed the standards into place too hurriedly in 2010, in part because federal authorities tied nearly $700 million in “Race to the Top” funds to Common Core implementation. Those same experts have said that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo contributed to the controversy by insisting that the state increase the weight of students’ scores in teacher job-performance evaluations.

How do the tests affect students and teachers?

The state Board of Regents, which sets education policy, in December 2015 passed a four-year moratorium that means Common Core test scores will not be used in a punitive way against students or in teachers’ job ratings. The moratorium is slated to last until at least the 2019-20 school year.

The four-year moratorium was approved by the Regents with the stipulation that teachers continue getting job ratings on an advisory basis.

Opt-out supporters say the moratorium doesn’t go far enough, and they are seeking repeal of the state’s teacher evaluation law and other education reforms.

Are the tests the same?

No. In response to educators’ and parents’ concerns, the Education Department in 2016 reduced the number of test questions and said tests will be untimed. As part of the state’s contract with a new company to create the tests, teachers had a far greater role in developing the 2016 test questions.

The new company — Questar Assessment Inc., a Minneapolis-based firm — was hired by the state Education Department in 2016. The 2016 exams, however, continue to use questions originally developed by Pearson Education, the London-based firm that produced the state’s tests since 2011.

Pearson, like the McGraw-Hill company that preceded it in publishing New York’s standardized exams, encountered withering criticism from teachers and parents for what they described as poorly written questions and technical gaffes in test administration.

Education Department officials said the state’s new $44 million, five-year contract with Questar calls for teachers to have a far greater role in test development.

That process started with the 2016 tests, department spokesman Jonathan Burman said, noting that “every reading passage, word problem and multiple-choice question on this spring’s tests has been reviewed by at least 22 New York State teachers from the appropriate grade level. If they didn’t like the questions, they were not included on the test.”

What has happened to New York students’ test scores since implementation of the Common Core standards?

Passing rates rose modestly among the roughly 900,000 students who took the exams in spring 2015. An estimated 200,000 statewide opted out, according to the state Education Department.

Test-score results the agency released in August 2015 showed that in English, the percentage of students scoring at the “proficient” level inched up to 31.3 percent statewide in 2015, compared with 30.6 percent in 2014 and 31.1 percent in 2013.

In math, percentages rose to 38.1 percent in 2015, from 36.2 percent in 2014 and 31.1 percent in 2013.

However, when compared with students’ test scores before implementation of Common Core, the difference is stark. Since the rollout of the more rigorous tests, overall scores on state tests have plunged.

Statewide, the percentage of children in grades 3-8 rated proficient or better in English dropped from 55.1 percent in 2012 to 31.1 percent in 2013. Math scores of 64.8 percent rated proficient or better in 2012 fell to 31 percent in 2013.

What are the consequences for a school with a high number of test refusals?

State Education Department officials have said that a district’s failure to meet the federal requirement of 95 percent participation on standardized tests, if not corrected, could result in penalties — including partial loss of federal Title I aid, used for academic remediation.

To date, the department has not imposed fiscal sanctions on a district because of failure to meet participation requirements on state tests.

Is Common Core here to stay?

Some local leaders say yes, that there is not enough support at the federal and/or state levels of government to force an end to the Common Core standards. But there has been backtracking on education reforms at both levels.

President Barack Obama in 2015 authorized returning control of how to improve troubled schools and districts to states and local systems.

In New York, the Board of Regents has modified its stances. In past years, a majority of board members enthusiastically supported higher academic standards and other reforms, but now there is a growing reluctance. Betty Rosa’s selection as Regents chancellor in March 2016 marked a dramatic shift in tone for the 17-member panel.

Activists say they will continue their campaign and the state cannot ignore the large number of test refusals. Their slogan in 2016 is “Nothing has changed. #Optout 2016”

–Compiled by Joie Tyrrell

Stories, data & video

Opt-outs cut broad swath across LI Opt-outs cut broad swath across LI

Nearly 88,000 students in grades three through eight opted out of the state Common Core math test in LI school districts that responded to a Newsday survey.

What you need to know What you need to know

The strength of the opt-out movement is tested in April, when the ELA and math tests are administered to students in grades 3-8. Here is what you need to know.

Editorial: Opt-out movement is out of hand Editorial: Opt-out movement is out of hand

It’s teachers unions and members fighting this battle and their tactics are exposing that this is not a parent-led push.

Should students take the tests? Should students take the tests?

Newsday’s editorial board has argued that opting out won’t help students or our schools. Dozens of LIers have shared their thoughts. What do you think?

LIers on Common Core testing

Complete Coverage

The basics of Common Core

When did the opt-out-movement begin?

Organized opposition began to gel in the 2012-13 school year with the state’s rollout of curriculum and tests aligned with the Common Core national academic standards. Criticism of the exams was broad and wide-ranging. Both educators and parents cited the content and frequency of tests, concern that exam questions were not appropriate to children’s developmental level, and the linkage of principals’ and teachers’ performance evaluations to students’ test scores. Parents also worried about the stress on their children and test-prep time affecting other subjects and pursuits.

The first significant increase in student test refusals on Long Island occurred with the spring 2013 administration of ELA and math tests in grades 3-8. Since then, with fierce controversy over educators’ evaluations, many teachers and their unions joined the opt-out battle lines and the number of opt-outs mushroomed — especially in spring 2015.

Across New York, parents formed anti-Common Core groups and used social media to connect and advance their cause. On Long Island, Jeanette Deutermann, a North Bellmore parent, founded the activist group Long Island Opt Out and has used social media to spread the word about test refusals. The group also has organized forums and rallies against the exams and helped parents navigate the how-to of opting their students out of the tests.

“We will continue to refuse to allow our children to participate in the system until ALL harmful reforms are removed from our classrooms,” Deutermann has said.

Opt-out supporters this year are advocating for repeal of state legislation that links students’ test scores to principals’ and teachers’ evaluations and other education reforms, using the slogan “Nothing has changed.”

What is Common Core?

Governors and state education chiefs of 48 states developed the Common Core, a set of academic benchmarks for kindergarten through 12th grade in English Language Arts/literacy and mathematics. New York was among 40-plus states that voluntarily adopted and implemented the standards, which were designed to ensure that students graduating from high school are college- or career-ready.

In New York, the state Board of Regents, which sets education policy, adopted the Common Core standards in July 2010 and incorporated some New York-specific elements in January 2011.

A handful of states that had adopted the standards — including Indiana, Oklahoma, Indiana and South Carolina — have since formally withdrawn from Common Core. At least four others — Missouri, New Jersey, North Carolina, Tennessee and Utah — are reviewing their states’ acceptance of the standards.

In New York, course curriculums and tests are aligned with the Common Core academic standards. Local districts and educators choose their curriculums following detailed guidelines from the state Education Department.

Generally speaking, according to the Common Core State Standards Initiative, the standards are an umbrella that outlines, by grade level, what students need to know and be able to do, and curriculums are designed to direct how students will learn the material.

What is the impact of Common Core testing on teacher evaluations?

As of early 2016, there is a four-year moratorium on using student scores on Common Core state tests to evaluate job performances by teachers and principals. The moratorium was in a set of “emergency regulations” passed by the state Board of Regents.

Educators still will get annual performance “growth” scores from Albany based on results of state tests given during the moratorium, but those scores will be advisory. They will not be used to decide which teachers and principals will be assigned improvement plans or fired.

The emergency regulations postponed until at least the 2019-20 school year any use of standardized state English Language Arts and math scores in penalizing students, teachers or principals.

Before the change, teachers and principals had faced the possibility — albeit a small one — of losing their jobs if they were rated “ineffective” two years in a row. That was part of New York State’s revised teacher evaluation law passed in March 2012 — also known as Annual Professional Performance Review — where teachers’ and principals’ job ratings were for the first time tied to the results of students’ scores on state standardized tests.

The state’s push for stricter teacher evaluations was an initiative encouraged by President Barack Obama’s administration and ultimately rewarded with federal “Race to the Top” financial incentives.

Initially, the evaluation system based 20 percent of teachers’ job ratings on state “growth” scores from their students’ test performance, 20 percent on an exam chosen by local districts and 60 percent on classroom observations and other measures.

But after about 98 percent of teachers were rated “effective” or better, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in 2015 called the system “baloney” and pushed forward a toughened revision of the law, which passed in April 2015. That gives far more emphasis to students’ results on standardized tests — up to 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation.

While the strengthened law remains in place, it is not being enforced because of the four-year moratorium.

–Compiled by Joie Tyrrell

Math & English test questions

How tough are the tests? See how much you remember from grade school with these sample questions from various Common Core sample tests available on EngageNY.org.

Join the conversation

COMMON CORE – YOUR TURN: Should students take the Common Core tests?

Posted by Newsday on Saturday, April 2, 2016