Education commissioner outlines efforts to streamline testing - The Buffalo News
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Education commissioner outlines efforts to streamline testing

State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. this week rolled out a proposal to eliminate a state test for eighth-graders taking advanced math and modify tests for new immigrants and severely disabled students.

The proposal – which will require approval from the federal government – came on the heels of a meeting with parents in Poughkeepsie two weeks ago that became very contentious.

After that meeting, King initially canceled additional meetings with parents about the Common Core curriculum. But he later scheduled a new round of meetings, the first of which was held Thursday in Albany and was far calmer than the Poughkeepsie meeting. That more respectful tone continued Friday in Rochester, where he addressed the annual convention of the New York State School Boards Association.

The proposed testing changes King outlined this week were welcomed by many district administrators as what they see as a necessary effort to address problems with the current system.

“The sense is widespread in schools that there’s been an overemphasis on testing. It’s not just the amount of testing, but the emphasis on testing,” said Robert N. Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

State Sen. Tim Kennedy, D-Buffalo, who co-hosted a summit this month to protest the extent of testing in the schools, released a statement Friday offering cautious praise for the proposed changes as well as a renewed call for further changes.

“The action taken by the state Education Department is a sign that our message is making it through to Albany. Our children are spending too much time preparing for and taking tests, and not enough time actually learning,” he said. “These changes are a step in the right direction. However, we need to not only cut down on testing, we need to make sure we get testing right.”

Regent Robert M. Bennett said the proposed changes, which were endorsed Tuesday by the Board of Regents, have been under consideration for nearly six months. He sought to refute speculation that King suggested the changes as a political move to mollify critics.

“They make good policy sense to us as a board,” Bennett said.

In a memo to school superintendents Thursday, King outlined what he called a “comprehensive initiative to streamline testing.

“Teaching is the core of our work,” King wrote in the letter. “The goal is not to create more tests or more teaching to the tests.”

The changes include:

• Asking the federal Department of Education to exempt advanced eighth-graders who take the Regents exam in algebra from taking the state’s eighth-grade math exam.

That would affect an estimated 57,000 students across the state, according to Jonathan Burman, a spokesman for the state education department. That works out to about one out of every four eighth-graders .

• Exploring offering native language arts tests for English language learners.

The state is in “the very early stages of exploring this possibility,” Burman said, so it’s not yet clear for how many years the option would be available after a student arrives in this country; how many languages the exams would be translated into; or which grade levels would be affected. About 8 percent of students in the state are considered to have limited English proficiency because it is not their native language.

“The proposal is intended to give students new to the country an opportunity to demonstrate proficiency in language arts by testing them in their native language,” he said.

• Requesting that students with severe disabilities who are not eligible for alternate exams be tested based on instructional level, rather than age.

Details have yet to be determined on which students would be affected, Burman said, but this proposed change likely would affect 1 to 2 percent of students.

It’s unclear how soon any of the testing changes might be implemented, if the federal government approves them.

While state officials maintain that the amount of state-required assessments has remained relatively constant over the last decade, King acknowledged in the letter “that a variety of pressures at the state and local level may have resulted in more testing than is needed and in rote test preparation that crowds out quality instruction.”

He called testing “an important part of the instructional cycle and necessary to monitor student academic progress and contribute to decisions at the classroom, school, district, and state levels.”

“However,” King wrote, “the amount of testing should be the minimum necessary to inform effective decision-making.”

King also has been making more explicit attempts to rebut statements from critics who say that students spend too much time taking tests. In his letter to superintendents, the commissioner said that less than 1 percent of the time in the school year is spent on testing.

Some of the increase in testing arises from decisions that many districts have made to administer pre-tests and post-tests to students as part of the teacher evaluation process, Lowry said.

Twenty percent of each teacher’s evaluation is based on student growth measures agreed upon by local district and union officials. Schools have several options for determining how to measure student growth.

Some, for instance, opt to use schoolwide measures of student improvement one year to the next, rather than testing individual students in specific subjects at the beginning and end of the year. That means an art teacher, for instance, might have those 20 points determined by the percentage increase in the number of students in the school achieving proficiency on state tests, rather than having her students tested specifically in art.

“There are other options,” Lowry said. “Yes, we are advocating for some changes in state policies, but here are some things that districts are doing to limit the amount of testing.”

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