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Common Core Related Tests Still A Concern At Budget Hearing

Mary Ellen Elia
Karen DeWitt

New York State’s 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 boycott movement continues.

Senators and Assemblymembers 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 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 January 13th. “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 says 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 schools with five fifth grade classes , where students in one classroom score much better on the math tests  than the other four.  She says 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’s 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, says there is a real threat that the state could lose federal funds if less than 95 % 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 says 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 dollars more for schools in the budget, along with ending a cap on funds to some schools known as the Gap Elimination Adjustment.  Governor Cuomo has proposed just under one billion new dollars in school aid.   

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.
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