By Michael Gormley
Some standardized tests in New York public schools will be eliminated, state Education Commissioner John King has told superintendents in a surprising announcement that cites "a variety of pressures" that may have hurt instruction. The move comes after years of criticism from teachers, parents and other detractors, some of whom said it still fell short.
The first target will be an eighth-grade math test, which comes at the same time as a federally required standardized test in math, King wrote in a letter sent Thursday and obtained by The Associated Press.
The Board of Regents is considering eliminating that test and others where possible in other grades, King said. Some tests, however, are required by the federal government. Grants will be provided to help school districts reduce local standardized tests, the letter states.
Noting that the frequency and number of tests has remained relatively constant over the past 10 years, King wrote to leaders of more than 700 districts that education officials "recognize that a variety of pressures at the state and local level may have resulted in more testing than is needed and in rote test preparation that crowds out quality instruction."
King told the state School Boards Association on Friday that nothing is settled yet but the U.S. Education Department seems receptive to granting the Regents exam's request for a waiver, according to Robert Lowry, spokesman for the New York State Council of School Superintendents, who was in the audience for King's speech.
The move came after an outcry over testing and teacher evaluations linked to the results, which peaked when King was shouted down by critics at an Oct. 10 forum in Poughkeepsie. That confrontation that led to cancellation of other scheduled forums and calls for King's resignation.
This week, King said, the Regents discussed "a comprehensive initiative to keep the focus on teaching."
"The Regents and the department will continue to look for ways to reduce testing that is not needed without sacrificing the valuable information assessments provide," King told superintendents in more than 700 school districts. "We welcome your input."
It's potentially a marked change for the Board of Regents, which has weathered criticism for well over a decade as it tried to improve student performance and instruction. Its steps included introduction of so-called school report cards that allowed the public to compare schools' performance, detailed analysis of test scores to pinpoint weaknesses and best practices, curriculum revised by experts, and far more rigorous requirements for high school graduation to better prepare students for college.
Performance in most areas improved, including closing the gap between poor and average-needs schools. But with the added testing by the state and the federal government introducing higher standards known as Common Core, there was more concern that students were too stressed and teachers spent time teaching to the test.
Superintendents welcomed King's move. They were eager to address the double, and sometimes triple, testing of eighth-graders, Lowry said.
"Standardized tests do have a place in education but not for what they're currently being used for," said Teresa Thayer Snyder, superintendent of the Voorheesville Central School District south of Albany. "They're very useful for diagnostics but to use blanket standardized tests over an extended period of time for very young learners is not an appropriate way to represent learning."
The effort is too little and too late for Allies for Public Education, which called for King's resignation this week.
"Eliminating a few standardized tests is like touching up the paint on a car and expecting it will run when in fact it has a faulty engine," said the group's spokesman, Eric Mihelbergel. "Until the high-stakes nature of testing is removed and the collection of private personal student data is halted, our children will continue to be harmed."
Billy Easton of the Alliance for Quality Education, which has long criticized the tests, added: "We need less testing, but we also need to freeze all high-stakes consequences tied to testing."
King told superintendents that the first goal is to eliminate double testing for eighth-graders in math, which will require federal approval.
King told the AP that he and the Regents will look to reduce multiple tests at other grade levels and pare away tests that don't support the Common Core goal of critical thinking. He said the department is already granting approvals to school districts remove some annual local tests and expect to grant more.
"We're firmly committed to the work on the Common Core and teacher and principal evaluations, but recognize these initiatives will be challenging and require careful adjustments along the way," King said in an interview.
He said reducing testing will also be part of his continuing community forums.
"Students are best prepared to succeed academically through rigorous and engaging instruction, not rote test preparation," King said. "Teaching is the core of our work."