New York state’s grade 3 to 8 math and English tests start this week and they look a little different than previous years.

In response to concerns about the length of the tests, the state cut English and math tests to two days each this year, dropping one testing day from each subject.

And fewer students will use a number two pencil. This year, more than 600 New York schools will be testing students on computers, a significant increase from the 184 schools that participated last year.

State officials say the switch to computer-based testing is important to get speedier results back to educators, but the transition to testing on computers has not been smooth in New York or nationally. Last year, a small amount of student data was compromised for those who took the tests on computers, and there are always concerns about whether schools have the technology to administer the tests.

However students take the exams, they remain controversial. About one in five families have boycotted the assessments for the past three years, many believing the state has overemphasized testing. On the flip side, the largest charter school network in New York celebrated tests by holding a rally in a professional sports arena.

Here’s what you need to know as students start taking the tests this week.

How much do state tests matter — and what are they used for?

  • They matter less than they once did, but Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has cited test scores as one of many factors the city uses to determine whether a school should close.
  • State policymakers have decided that grades 3-8 math and English exam scores will no longer count in teacher evaluations.
  • However, the moratorium on the use of state test scores in teacher evaluations will sunset in 2019, and state officials are starting work to revamp teacher evaluations. It’s unclear whether test scores will be part of the new system.
  • Meanwhile, the city has reduced the tests’ influence on school ratings and decisions about whether students move on to the next grade.
  • The state has submitted a new plan for how test scores will be used to evaluate schools under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. Test scores are still an important part of the evaluation, but the state has added new measures, including chronic absenteeism and suspension rates.

Why are state tests so controversial?

  • When the state adopted new Common Core-aligned standards, the tests became more difficult to pass, just as the stakes for teachers and schools grew.
  • The state began tying teacher evaluations to test scores.
  • Critics argue teachers have been forced to narrow their curriculum to focus on test preparation.
  • Many teachers are frustrated by the continued emphasis on testing. Others see the tests as helpful in gauging student progress.

What has the state changed in recent years?

  • The tests in 2016 were made slightly shorter.
  • Students were also allotted unlimited time to complete them in 2016 — a change meant to reduce student stress.
  • State test scores in English leapt after the changes made two years ago. Elia said that meant the scores could not be compared “apples-to-apples” to the year before, but city officials still celebrated the scores with little mention of the changes.
  • That led some to ask, how should we use the scores? And what does it mean for evaluating struggling schools?
  • Since 2015, a greater number of teachers have been involved in reviewing test questions, state officials said.
  • In 2017, state officials announced they did not plan to make significant changes to the tests. (First, they announced they would keep the tests stable for two years, but then backed off that decision the next day.)
  • This year, state officials decided to cut the math and English tests by one day each.
  • However, officials also announced that they would not apply for a federal testing pilot that would have allowed them to more dramatically revamp the tests.

What’s up with the opt-out movement?

  • Last year, opt-out percentages were 19 percent statewide, down two percentage points from the previous year.
  • The number of families sitting out of exams in New York City was much smaller at 3 percent for English exams and 3.5 percent for math.
  • Statewide, opt-out students in 2015 were more likely to be white and less likely to be poor, and liberal areas in Brooklyn and Manhattan saw the city’s highest opt-out numbers.
  • Leaders of the the opt-out movement have said they want to broaden their approach to state politics. Nationally, a recent study found that many members of the movement aren’t parents at all, but teachers and education advocates.
  • Despite the changes enacted so far, opt-out advocates aren’t satisfied. They still want substantially shorter tests with no consequences for schools.
  • A federal mandate says 95 percent of students must take state tests, but the way students opting out of exams are counted under the state’s new accountability plan is complicated. Though schools with high opt-out rates must technically count boycotting students as having failed the assessment, the state has created a workaround that should buffer these schools. State officials told Chalkbeat that they do not expect high opt-out schools to face serious consequences as long as they perform well on other metrics.