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Commissioner Elia, in Buffalo area, sees education at the grass roots in seeking support for revised state tests

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia walked into this region's Opt-Out Central on Wednesday.

She may not have changed any minds, but she could have gained some grudging respect from some for listening to the area's most fervent supporters of the opt-out movement.

The commissioner is in town to get the word out about changes to the state English language arts and math tests that third- through eighth-graders will start taking Tuesday.

“Some people may change their mind, and some may not. I'm accepting of the fact that the most important thing is to get the word out about the changes … and get that trust back,” Elia said.

Last year, 71 percent of West Seneca students did not take the state assessments in protest over the way the tests were designed, given and used. That's one of the reasons she visited Allendale Elementary in the West Seneca Central School District.

“Some people don't understand there have been significant changes made,” Elia said.

Parents, who said they value their school district, welcomed the commissioner Wednesday, but had a message for her: The changes in the tests are not enough to make our children opt in.

Elia also visited Depew Middle School and William Street School in Lancaster, where she met with about 75 parents late in the afternoon. More than 40 percent of students opted out in the Depew and Lancaster districts last year.

In Buffalo on Thursday, Elia is to visit West Hertel Academy and Marva J. Daniels Futures Preparatory Academy.

Elia acknowledged that she saw problems with standards and assessments after taking over as commissioner last July.

“It was pretty obvious to me that some key things went wrong,” she told Lancaster teachers. “It wasn't purposeful, but I wasn't here.”

Lancaster Advocates for Quality Education held a rally outside William Street School just before Elia met with parents. The focus of the rally was that “nothing has changed,” said Heidi Indelicato, a member of the group.

Parent Christine Gust, who has three children in Lancaster schools and is a teacher in the Frontier district, said the changes have not gone far enough for her to allow her children to take the tests.

“Until I know more, my kids will not be taking the state assessments. I need to know more as a teacher and a mom,” Gust said, but praised Elia for making the changes.

West Seneca parent Craig Dana, who sat in on the late morning forum in the Allendale auditorium, expressed frustration that “change happens slowly.”

“That's not good news for my son,” he said, adding that the boy probably will have graduated by the time that changes are in effect.

Still, the 45-minute forum with about three dozen staff members and a handful of parents in the Allendale auditorium was well-mannered and civil, as was the Lancaster meeting.

“I don't have any problem talking to our teachers, to our school board members, and our administrators, or our parents,” Elia said. “We need to give them the voice and we need to be respectful enough to listen to them.”

Elia seemed as at ease meeting with parents as she did chatting with students in the classrooms.

When she walked into Sue Burgio's third-grade class at Allendale, students were writing alliterative sentences such as “Dirty dogs dig ditches daily” and “Dalmatian dogs get dirty down in the ditch.” The commissioner said that was a perfect example of creativity in the classroom.

Since she took office eight months ago, she noted, a four-year moratorium has been declared on using results from state tests for teacher and principal evaluations, the state is reviewing the Common Core Learning Standards, and there have been changes to the assessments.

Those changes include teacher involvement, with more than 20 teachers reviewing each question and throwing out those they deem inappropriate, results being presented in a different format and returned to districts sooner than in years past. About 65 percent of questions will be made public this year, and possibly all of the questions will be make made public from next year's test, she said. The tests are shorter this year, and the goal is to have them down to two days apiece next year.

“As a parent, we're not disputing high standards. We want our children to be successful, but we want them to be developmentally appropriate,” said West Seneca parent JoAnne Janowski.

“In the meantime, our kids are missing out on what public education should be.”

Elia said, “We did not create the issues in New York overnight, and we aren't going to get out of them overnight, and if we do it too quickly, you will have the same issues that you had when it was done too quickly before.”

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