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Elia shows willingness to make changes without compromising high standards

New York State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia continues to put her stamp on public education in New York, streamlining operations and making valuable adjustments to procedures while still maintaining a solid commitment to high standards. It’s just what New York needs right now.

Elia’s latest move is to try to ease some of the pressure on students and, along with it, the resistance of their parents, while doing it in a way that doesn’t compromise educational quality. In particular, she said, students taking tests this spring will have more time to complete them, and the tests will be shorter.

Shorter could certainly be better, depending on how they are cut back. Giving students more time is without doubt a winner. The goal is for students to demonstrate what they know; how long it takes them to demonstrate that is of secondary interest, at best.

In addition, the state is changing the company that produces the tests. Pearson, a London-based publishing company, has been severely criticized by some parents who opted their children out of the tests.

In a lengthy process of changing vendors, this year’s tests will still feature questions designed by Pearson, but the tests will be administered by a new company, Questar Assessment. Teachers have been involved in reviewing the questions, Elia said. The tests will continue to be given over three days, but she said the State Education Department is hoping to reduce the number of days next year.

Some parents remain critical and say they will continue to keep their children out of testing. They should reconsider. The state is moving in a useful direction, and children are unlikely to suffer scarring from taking a shorter test for which they are given more time. It’s important for children to understand that there are some things they need to do and that their parents won’t always be around to enable their refusal. That’s a life lesson.

Most parents, it can be hoped, will see that the State Education Department is working on issues that they have raised while preserving the essential component of high standards. That is critical, if today’s New York students are going to compete effectively for jobs in a world that is ever more connected and ever more competitive. Those who blindly insist that the old ways were good enough are risking their children’s future standard of living, whether they acknowledge it or not.

Elia continues to show signs that she was a strong choice to succeed former Commissioner John B. King Jr., who is now acting secretary of education in the Obama administration. Elia has been firm about the need to improve education, especially in Buffalo, but has been open to making changes in how the state goes about implementing programs aimed at accomplishing that necessary goal.

The improvements she announced in student testing count as additional evidence that she was what New York needed at a stressful but critical moment. We presume there will be more such moments.