With state standardized tests in grades three to eight beginning this week, administrators in Bellmore and Merrick — the epicenter of the parent-led “opt-out” movement —have been reaching out to parents, who were feeling anxious since the State Education Department threatened last year to begin cracking down on districts with low test-participation rates.
Central District officials assured parents that the choice of whether to keep their children from taking the tests was still theirs.
The message coming from the Merrick School District was quite different, however.
In Merrick, a number of parents took to social media last week to condemn a letter from district administrators urging them to make their children take the tests. “The percentage of our students taking last year’s assessments was well below the state average,” the letter read, later adding, “The district does encourage all children to take their respective New York State assessments.”
Meanwhile, in a February letter from Grand Avenue Middle School Principal Carlo Conte, parents were simply presented with the test schedule, and assured that administrators “recognize your right to make the decisions that are in the best interest of your children.”
The letter also provided instructions for parents who wanted to opt their children out of the tests.
Central District Superintendent John DeTommaso has been outspoken in his support of the opt-out movement, despite moves by state education officials.
Michele Trageser, a parent whose children attended the Merrick School District, said on Facebook that she was “simply disgusted” by the letter, adding that administrators in the past had sent parents a letter informing them of their right to refuse the test, similar to what is still done in the Central District.
The Merrick letter also warned parents that state officials had deemed one of the district’s buildings as “potentially a targeted support and improvement school,” because of a high number of test refusals. “This is a serious designation,” it read.
Merrick had a significantly smaller percentage of students opt out of the state ELA tests last year than the Central District — 49 percent versus 70 percent. Some 65.4 percent of Bellmore elementary district students opted out last year.
A review of the State Education Department’s 2018-19 Accountability Status data indicated that all of Merrick’s schools were in “Good Standing,” with Levy Lakeside School potentially targeted for support and improvement in the future because of the performance of students with disabilities on the tests.
Nancy Kaplan, Merrick Board of Education vice president, also sits on the Central District board. She referred the Herald to Merrick’s superintendent for questions about the letter, and the district’s designation. “The administrators of the district took the approach they did because they felt it was in the best interest of the students,” Kaplan said.
Merrick District Superintendent Dominick Palma confirmed in an email Tuesday that Levy Lakeside was at risk for targeted support and improvement, and added that Chatterton Elementary School was “at risk of being targeted for participation improvement.” He did not comment on the performance of students with disabilities at Lakeside.
Palma said that each of the Central District’s component elementary districts sends out its own messaging about state tests based on its own issues. However, despite Merrick’s letter encouraging participation, he said administrators still support parents’ right to opt their children out.
“We respect the right of parents to decide what is best for their child in terms of taking the state assessments,” Palma said. “We continue to respect parents’ choice of whether or not their children will participate in state assessments.”
Jeanette Deutermann, of North Bellmore, founded the group Long Island Opt Out, which helped spur the nationwide movement of student test boycotts. Last summer, she railed against a series of regulations coming from the State Education Deparment and the Board of Regents that would have punished districts academically and financially if 95 percent of students did not participate in the tests.
Last September, Regents struck down some of the provisions that parents and advocates found most objectionable.
Deutermann criticized administrators in Merrick last week, accusing them of “passing along fear that has been unfairly placed on adults in charge of a school district onto the parents and children of the district.
“Parents are here to stand with [administrators] and BOEs to fight back against the unfair NYSED policies,” she continued. “Instead of turning to and embracing the parents and students in the community, letters laced with threats and fear — as this one is — only make one thing clear: That the Merrick District has instead chosen to place the burden on the backs of our children . . . Districts need to consider if fear of [NYSED] is worth the fallout right here at home.”
In the Central High School District, close to three-quarters of students usually opt out of the tests. DeTommaso declined to comment on the Merrick letter, but has said in the past that the Central District’s opt-out numbers represent “an incredible movement by parents.”
Scores on state tests “don’t give a true picture of not only the child’s performance, but of a building’s performance,” DeTommaso said, adding, “I think it’s parents’ prerogative to make the decision of whether their student is going to take a test or not.”