The New York State education commissioner’s lesson for parents, teachers and educators is quite simple: You can’t manage what you don’t measure.
That’s true in business and true in the business of educating students and, for that matter, evaluating teachers.
Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, a former teacher in the Sweet Home District, set out on a mission ahead of this week’s state assessment tests given to third- through eighth-graders. These are tests that too many parents allowed their children to skip last year. In droves. The opt-out movement by parents – and fueled by the teachers unions – could result in low turnout for this week’s exams. It shouldn’t.
Parents should understand that their children need to be tested so that educators know where they need to focus. That was the case when the older generation was in school and it remains so today. It may even be more urgent in today’s world of increasing competition. Like it or not, students will eventually face tests of proficiency. And they will be timed tests.
Elia said it in a letter to this newspaper: “Opting out of the 2016 tests is not the answer.” The tests, as she said, are an “essential part of the student experience. They help educators plan for the coming school year and develop individualized learning plans for students.”
Still fairly new on the job, the education commissioner decided to take her case to the people. Many might hesitate given the statistics: more than 220,000 third- through eighth-graders in schools across the state opted out of taking the tests last year.
This area had the dubious distinction of being at the epicenter. Elia stood tall against doubters, having visited classrooms in Buffalo and where the opt-out movement hit its stride: West Seneca schools, where 71 percent of students refused to take tests last year. She went to Depew, where 46 percent opted out last year, and Lancaster, where 44 percent opted out. She also went to Erie 1 Board of Cooperative Educational Services.
She was met with a barrage of negativity from protesters. Lancaster Advocates for Quality Education held a rally outside William Street School before Elia met with parents. Their message: “Nothing has changed.”
That’s not true.
Education officials have responded to criticism. This year’s English language arts and math tests will have fewer questions, and no time limits to finish them. Teachers and principals were surely relieved to know that the tests will not be used to evaluate their performance. That will hold true for the next four years. Nevertheless, educators also need to realize their weaknesses and where they might improve.
Elia also stressed the vetting of the tests. Each item has been reviewed by at least 22 state educators.
The commissioner is promoting the changes as a start to something that will, in time, get better. It stands to reason to give this approach a chance, and speaks directly to parents who chose and continue to choose to remove their children from the process. They should rethink that decision. Elia told The News that the new Board of Regents chancellor is supportive of her efforts. That is a relief. Perhaps Betty A. Rosa’s meaning was misunderstood within the larger context when she told reporters: “If I was a parent, and I was not on the Board of Regents, I would opt out at this time, yes.”
Teachers who do not know how well their students are learning will be at a disadvantage. Conversely, taxpayers who pay through the nose to have their children educated need to know how well teachers are teaching.
Elia mentioned that since she took office nine months ago, a four-year moratorium has been declared on using results from state tests for teacher and principal evaluations. The state is also reviewing the Common Core Learning Standards, and there have been changes to assessments.
It should be enough compromise to satisfy the holdouts. Yet the union-fueled parent opt-out movement remains strong, making it that much more difficult to measure student success. And making it even harder to fill the gaps. That hurts the students.