Critics take on school tests, teacher evals

Dr. John King Jr., commissioner of Education and

Dr. John King Jr., commissioner of Education and president of the University of the State of New York (second from right) listens as Dick Ianuzzi, president at NYSUT talks about school system structure before members of the New York Education Reform during a public hearing at SUNY College at Old Westbury. (Oct. 11, 2012) (Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa)

Carol Burris, principal of South Side High School in Rockville Centre, was one of several educators objecting to the emphasis on testing and teacher evaluations at Long Island's first regional hearing of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's new Education Reform Commission Thursday.

"The obsession with test-based evaluation of students, schools and teachers is tearing the schools we love apart," said Burris in SUNY Old Westbury's student union building. "Something is very wrong when 9-year-olds sit for tests that are longer than the SAT and the Graduate Record Exam combined."

The more than 200 people at the nearly four-hour hearing, tasked with providing recommendations on such topics as early education and student achievement, clapped loudly in response to Burris' remarks.

"Schools operate as a team," Burris said. "The last thing you want to do is to incentivize teachers not to want that high-risk student in their class."

In his only comment at the hearing, John King, commissioner of the New York State Education Department and president of the University of the state of New York, directly addressed Burris' remarks -- saying his disagreement with her on "these issues is well-documented."

"The law provides a tremendous amount of local flexibility," King said. "I think it's unfair to characterize the law as one size fits all, which is not true."

King added that the "value-added" component of teacher evaluations was a move that "a very large number of states have made," and was supported by research that President Barack Obama cited in his recent State of the Union address as "a useful predictor of performance."

Commissioner Michael Rebell asked Burris to submit in writing what kind of flexibility New York can give to local school districts and still meet the federal government's mandates.

Yesterday's hearing was the seventh of nine that the 20-member commission is having around the state. By December, it will submit a preliminary report to the governor's office and the commission will file its final report by September 2013, said commission chairman Dick Parsons.

Dick Ianuzzi, president of the New York State United Teachers union, who taught 34 years in Central Islip, said schools need to bring social, economic, nutritional and health care needs of students to the forefront.

"The school house is more than just an academic setting," he said.

While some representatives from business groups heralded property tax caps as a success, Ianuzzi described the mandate as "an education failure," to much applause. "And doing so, it has hurt every school district in New York State, and has disproportionately hurt those that can least afford it," he said.

Nikhil Goyal, 17, of Woodbury, a senior at Syosset High School, was one of two students who addressed the commission. He bemoaned the testing culture -- particularly taking a multiple-choice test in gym class -- and "ludicrous formula" to gauge teacher performance.

"I'm not a number and a test score . . . I'm a student. I want to be taught to create, to think and explore," he said at the hearing. "What separates the great from the average in the world is not high grades and scores. It's curiosity. It's grit. It's passion. It's drive."

After the meeting, he said he applauded the commission's efforts to hear from the public, but criticized the fact that the event was held during the day without enough voices from parents, students and teachers. "Without significant representation of all the stakeholders," he said, "it's going to be a waste of everybody's time."

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