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State tests, teacher evaluations top new commissioner’s agenda

A change at the top of New York’s Education Department could bring significant changes in the state’s standardized testing and teacher evaluations.

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, who started the job this week, told parents and educators of the Sweet Home district in Amherst on Thursday that one of her first orders of business will be a review of the controversial Common Core Learning Standards and accompanying assessments, as well as how the state uses those tests to evaluate teachers.

“It’s a reasonable thing to do at this point,” she said, noting that other states have reviewed and altered the standards following implementation.

“Step back, and get some feedback from practitioners about the standards themselves.”

Elia’s visit to Sweet Home Middle School coincided with the Education Department’s announcement that it plans to enter into a $44 million contract with Questar Assessment to develop new math and reading tests that will be administered in the upcoming school year. The new assessments for grades 3 to 8 will come with computerized versions for districts interested in administering them in that manner.

Questar will replace Pearson, the London-based publishing giant that has drawn criticism for its tests. Although the state will still be able to use test questions developed under Pearson, Questar will be responsible for compiling a new bank of exams. The contract requires the company to utilize teachers in the development of the new assessments.

Elia said the state hopes the new assessments will take less time, and that teachers will have access to their students’ results quicker so they can use the information to drive classroom instruction. A major criticism of the current system is that teachers do not get their students’ results in a timely enough fashion to effectively use them in their lessons.

The new contract marks a significant development in one of the biggest issues Elia will tackle as education commissioner. Concerns about testing and the Common Core dominated her conversations with parents, teachers and school leaders in Sweet Home during her visit.

The district, where Elia started her education career in 1970, was the first stop on a statewide listening tour that aims to connect her with stakeholders across New York. It was also the first time that educators outside of Albany got to meet the new commissioner and hear her views on some of the most pressing issues in education.

Although Elia acknowledged a potential need for change to the state’s standards and assessment system, she reaffirmed her belief that testing is a critical part of the education process, and that teachers should be held accountable for their students performance – provided that the tests are reliable.

“I am not a person who believes that children shouldn’t be tested,” she said. “Life is one big test. We have to get to the point where people are at peace with that.”

The state must first review the reliability of the tests, Elia said, and to do that, she plans to form several task forces that include district leaders. They will look at whether the standards at each grade level are appropriate both agewise and developmentally.

Elia said she also plans to tap into the expertise of educators from outside of New York State to verify that questions included on the tests do in fact match the standards. In addition, she will study how much time students spend taking tests, and whether the assessments are being driven by the state or by local school districts.

She suggested that the state may be able to reduce time devoted to test-taking by working with teachers to embed the assessments into lessons and allowing them to administer them on computers in their classrooms, rather than during a set testing period. Some of those issues will likely be addressed under the new contract with Questar.

Even so, some Sweet Home parents remained cautious about the state’s continued reliance on standardized tests, especially at a time many districts struggle with their budgets.

“The frustration with a lot of parents is that cuts are being made at the same time standards are being raised,” said Jessica Wagner, a Sweet Home parent. “Our children are suffering because of it.”

In response to those concerns, Elia reinforced the importance of parents and teachers working together with state leaders to develop a system everyone can agree will help students in the classroom.

She acknowledged that could be a tough sell in a state that had some of the highest numbers in the country of students opting out of tests. “The opt-out issue is very problematic,” she said. “It hasn’t been good for anyone.”

Elia, 66, leaned on stories and examples from her decades working in schools to convince skeptics that, regardless of the politics, her focus will remain on what’s best for students.

But in a state where many are still reeling from controversy surrounding education policies coming out of Albany, some parents were cautious despite that reassurance.

“It’s refreshing to here these ideas,” said Nadine Ocasio, a Sweet Home parent who teaches in West Seneca. “I just hope that politics don’t muddy your waters. And I just hope you stay true to who you are. What we have seen previously is politics does sometimes get in the way.”

Elia acknowledged that politics in education may be inevitable.

“I think we all know, I can’t control everybody else,” Elia said. “Rest assured that what you are hearing here will not change. Now, that does not mean that I always win. I don’t have all the power. I don’t make all of the decisions. I will be a voice for what I believe. I have a lot of experience, and in your district.

“I’m a teacher, I’m an educator, I’m not a politician,” she added. “I understand the difference.”