Students across New York began taking state-mandated standardized Common Core tests on Tuesday, and a big question in the education world was how many students will decide not to take the test. Last year, some 20 percent of students in New York opted out of the exams, the largest number of any state. Here’s a look at what’s going on in New York, by  Carol Burris, a former New York high school principal who is now executive director of the nonprofit Network for Public Education, introduces you to the new chancellor and analyzes the legacy of the one who is soon departing. Burris was named the 2010 Educator of the Year by the School Administrators Association of New York State, and in 2013, the same organization named her the New York State High School Principal of the Year. She has been chronicling botched school reform efforts in her state for years on this blog, and this is her newest piece.

Common Core started out as a push by states to improve learning standards, but it has made education an even more contentious issue. (Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

By Carol Burris

New York State rocked the world of test-based reform last year when nearly a quarter of a million students opted out of the Grades 3-8 Common Core tests.  Despite the pleas, admonishments and insults directed at opt-out parents by many in the New York media, test refusals have exploded again this year, and early indications point to even higher numbers.

High Achievement New York’s (HANY) director, Stephen Sigmund, has led the charge against opt out for months. HANY, which is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Helmsley Charitable Trust and the Robin Hood Foundation to promote and defend the Common Core, engaged in  a well-funded media campaign designed to have parents “say yes to the test.”

The campaign had little, if any, effect.  In some schools, only a handful of students took the test.  Eighty-seven percent of the students in Allendale Elementary School outside of Buffalo, New York opted out.  Eighty-six percent of test eligible students in the Long Island district of Comsewogue refused the test, and 89 percent of students in Dolgeville in the Mohawk Valley said “no.”

Long Island continues to be the hotbed of testing resistance. Newsday reported that 49.7 percent of all Long Island students refused the test Tuesday even though the Newsday editorial board has repeatedly urged parents to have their children take it.  Patchogue-Medford Superintendent Michael J. Hynes characterized Opt Out as “a thunderclap” sent to Albany.  Seventy-one percent of the students in his district refused the Common Core tests.

There is also evidence that the Opt Out movement is gaining ground with parents of color, with many no longer willing to buy the spin that taking Common Core tests will improve their children’s life chances.

Ninety-seven percent of the more than 1,000 students who attend Westbury Middle School in Nassau County are black or Latino, and  81 percent are economically disadvantaged.  On Tuesday, 50 percent of those students were opted out of the tests by their parents. Last year, the number was 2 percent.

Last week, Westbury parents filled a forum sponsored by Long Island Opt Out in order to learn how to refuse the test.  When a district official tried to convince those in attendance that testing helps improve educational opportunities for minority students, one mother pushed back. “Don’t you dare tell parents that these tests will help them… these tests tear our kids down. They don’t lead to success.”

Jamaal Bowman is the principal of Cornerstone Academy for Social Action, a highly regarded middle school in the Bronx.  Ninety nine percent of his students are black or Latino and 84 percent are economically disadvantaged.  Last year, only 5 of his students refused the test. On Tuesday, 25 percent opted out.

Bowman, who is African American, is not rattled by the high number of opt outs. He believes his parents should have that choice. “All parents, including parents of color, have the right to refuse state standardized tests if they so choose. Public schools have historically excluded parents of color from the conversation regarding policies that impact their children the most.”

Bowman has little faith in the ability of the tests to help his students.  “We have been testing communities of color since before NCLB [No Child Left Behind] and the results have not yielded any results of note. The achievement gap is larger and all of the research-based practices that could really help communities of color and all communities, like early childhood and whole-child initiatives, continue to be ignored while we double down on test-and-punish practices. These tests are about profit and power, not helping black and brown children. “

Lisa Rudley of the New York Allies for Public Education was not surprised to see the high numbers of refusals across the state.  “The week before testing, we had 122,564 hits on our website as parents sought information on how to refuse the test,” she said.  A public school parent and advocate for students with disabilities, Rudley does not see Opt Out ending until there is substantial change to the Common Core standards, the tests, and the New York reform agenda.

“Parents need to see relief in the classroom from inappropriate standards. The tests need to be diagnostic and helpful for children. The Education Transformation Act needs to be repealed—test and punish must end.  So must the ranking and sorting of schools.”

For weeks HANY’s Sigmund, has claimed, without evidence, that this year’s tests will be fairer.  He has been taunting Opt Out parents, portraying them as unreasonable and unwilling “to take yes for an answer.”  As the numbers roll in from the first day of testing, one wonders if Sigmund and his backers will take “no” for an answer—clearly parents who say “no to the test” have not been persuaded.