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Common Core Related Tests Still A Concern At NY Budget Hearing

Mike Groll

New York education commissioner Mary Ellen Elia spent nearly four hours before the legislative budget committees. Though there is a moment of calm as the state pulls back from some of the more controversial parts of the Common Core standards, her testimony revealed potential trouble later in the school year if the test boycotting movement continues.

Senators and Assembly members remain focused on the controversy over the growth of standardized testing, and the exam boycott movement. But the atmosphere was cordial between them and Education Commissioner Mary Ellen Elia, who has been on the job for just over half a year, and who has focused on easing tensions stirred up by her predecessor, and Governor Andrew Cuomo.

The biggest difference between last year’s contentious budget cycle and now is that teacher evaluations have been uncoupled from the standardized test results.

One year ago, Cuomo, who does not directly control education policy, pressed lawmakers to adopt new teacher performance reviews that relied more heavily on standardized tests, calling present tests “baloney.”

The teachers union rebelled, with protests, and one fifth of students statewide opted out of the exams. Since then, Elia and the state Board of Regents have dismantled that arrangement, and the governor’s own hastily appointed task force quietly agreed. Cuomo barely mentioned the controversy in his 2016 State of the State message, and said he wanted to fix things.

“The education system fails without parental trust,” Cuomo said on Jan. 13. “Period.”

The tests will still be given to students in third through eighth grade this spring, but they won’t count on either the students' or the teachers' records until at least 2020. That led some lawmakers, including Assemblyman Dean Murray a Republican from Long Island, to ask, why administer the exams at all?

“The parents are saying 'why are our kids being used as guinea pigs right now, with the threat of us losing funding if they don’t take these tests?'” Murray asked Elia.

Elia offered a defense of the assessments. She said even if they are not connected to the rankings of teachers and students, they are useful in finding out the weak points in instruction. She gives the example of a school with five fifth grade classes, where students in one classroom score much better on the math tests than the other four. She said the principal can learn from the successful teacher how to do better.

“It isn’t that we are forcing a student to be a guinea pig,” Elia said. “We’re getting information about how well things are going.”

It’s unknown whether the recent changes will quell the opt-out movement. Elia told lawmakers that she takes very seriously a letter from the federal education department, which is now headed by former State Education Commissioner John King. It reminds New York that part of the agreement for receiving what are known as Title I funds was that the majority of students take the standardized tests. The letter asks that states devise a plan to up their rate of compliance this year or the federal agency “may take enforcement action.”

Afterward, Elia, speaking to reporters, said there is a real threat that the state could lose federal funds if less than 95 percent of students take the tests in April.

“I’m not sure exactly how that is all going to play out,” Elia said. “But, clearly, the federal government is concerned about it, and has put out a serious warning.”

Last summer, federal officials backed off on similar threats and said they would not penalize schools financially where large number of children boycotted the tests.

Meanwhile, the agreement to delay all effects of the tests until the 2019-2020 school year gives the education department a chance to rethink the Common Core standards and devise a better curriculum. Common Core was initially fast tracked in New York, in an effort that was widely viewed as disastrous.

Elia said it will be different this time.

“We don’t want to rush this,” she said.

The Commissioner also told lawmakers that the state’s diverse array of pre-kindergarten programs need to be consolidated, and she stuck by the Regents call for $2.4 billion more for schools in the budget, along with ending a cap on funds to some schools known as the Gap Elimination Adjustment. Cuomo has proposed just under $1 billion in school aid.

Karen has covered state government and politics for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 New York and Connecticut stations, since 1990. She is also a regular contributor to the statewide public television program about New York State government, New York Now. She appears on the reporter’s roundtable segment, and interviews newsmakers.
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