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New Regents chancellor: ‘I would opt out at this time’

Newly elected Regents Chancellor Betty A. Rosa had a clear message for parents Monday: You have the right to opt your children out of state assessments.

As a parent, Rosa said, she would choose that option.

“If I was a parent, and I was not on the Board of Regents, I would opt out at this time, yes,” the former Bronx school superintendent told reporters shortly after she was elected to succeed departing Chancellor Merryl H. Tisch.

But Rosa, who will now head the state board that sets New York education policy, stopped short of recommending that parents take that route when their elementary and middle school students take state assessments in English and math next month.

“As a Board of Regents member, my recommendation is that parents should be informed,” Rosa said. “And parents should make their own personal decision.”

Rosa’s election Monday to head the 17-member Board of Regents marks a significant change in leadership from Tisch, who had staunchly defended a period of rapid changes that included new state tests and implementation of teacher evaluations and new learning standards. Rosa, 64, steps into the new role as the state continues to review those controversial education reform efforts, which roiled public schools and prompted more than 200,000 children to boycott state assessments last year.

“We need to reconceptualize the work that we’ve been doing, particularly around the work of equity and social justice,” Rosa told members of the Board of Regents after the group voted, 15-0, to make her chancellor. Two members abstained from the vote.

Rosa, in her remarks to reporters, echoed comments made by Tisch last summer in which Tisch said she would “think twice” if she were the mother of a student with a disability about allowing her child to sit through an exam that the child did not understand. Rosa said Monday that she, too, was particularly concerned about children who were still learning English or had other types of special needs. But Rosa took her comments a step further than Tisch, clarifying that if she were the parent of school-age children, not just those with learning disabilities, she would direct them to opt out.

A critic of the way the state has tested children in elementary and middle schools in recent years, Rosa walked a line in her first public comments as chancellor-elect between highlighting the changes that the state Education Department has already put in place to revamp assessments and reiterating that parents have the right to direct their children to opt out of the tests. She also sought to change the tone of the discussion over state tests and other education reforms.

“We have to rebuild a sense of confidence,” Rosa said. “We have to rebuild a sense that we’re in this together, that this is not about we have the answers and you have to challenge.”

During the last eight months, the Board of Regents and the Education Department have sought to put through a series of changes in how the state tests are handled, including changing the company that creates the tests, getting student performance data to schools faster, shortening the tests and allowing students more time to work out their answers. Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia noted that teachers are now reviewing every question on the English Language Arts and math tests given to third- through eighth-graders.

Elia said she has been trying to get that message out to parents ahead of when the tests begin in grades 3 through 8 next month.

“I do believe that the tests that we have in place are better, and I do believe that there is a benefit for those assessments to be given to our students so we have a plan as we move forward,” Elia said.

Parents who last year helped organize the statewide movement to boycott the tests have said in recent weeks that they have not seen enough changes to state testing, teacher evaluations and other policies and expect to see another wave of children opt out of the tests next month.

Rosa noted that the Board of Regents will continue to work on revamping the assessments to address concerns of parents, teachers and administrators.

“I think that what the commissioner is saying is she’s going around trying to help parents understand that changes have been made,” Rosa said.

“Are they where the parents want these changes to be? No. Are we working to make sure that we get to a better place? Absolutely.”

Performance on the state tests is tied to a number of controversial reform efforts, including measuring how schools and districts perform and a new law that allows the state to bring in an outside group to run schools that do not perform well over long periods of time.

The tests also are tied to a new teacher-evaluation system, although the state has suspended the use of those test scores in evaluating teachers through 2019.

“Teacher evaluation has been the product of the Governor’s Office and the Legislature, and not the Board of Regents,” said newly elected Vice Chancellor T. Andrew Brown, a 57-year-old Rochester attorney.

“The moratorium allows us time to share our thoughts, our insights, our experiences with the Legislature and the governor to better shape teacher evaluation in the future.”