NY ed chief faces test from LI educators

New York State Education Commissioner John B. King New York State Education Commissioner John B. King (left) met with Long Island school superintendents, such as James Polansky, Superintendent of Schools of the Huntington School District (right) and other administrators from at Half Hollow Hills High School East to discuss recent Long Island test scores. (Aug 16, 2013). Photo Credit: Newsday/Jeffrey Basinger

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State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. fielded sharp questions Friday from Long Island educators during his first visit to the region since he reported a plunge in student test scores last week.

Several of the school administrators gathered at a regional conference in Dix Hills underlined the psychological impact of seeing test results published, in comments directed at the state's top education executive.

"I have to say it's quite deflating for teachers, principals and administrators in a diverse community," said Lori Cannetti, an assistant superintendent in the Patchogue-Medford district.

Cannetti noted that a relatively high number of students in her district -- about 10 percent -- have limited English skills that make test-taking a particular challenge.

King, who spoke at length about his agency's efforts to upgrade academic standards and provide schools with training brochures and videos, acknowledged that the latest scores had caused considerable angst. But he added that the effort was essential to prepare students for 21st century jobs.

"The thing that keeps us awake at night is the kid we didn't quite reach," the commissioner said.

King spoke to about 300 superintendents and other officials gathered at Half Hollow Hills High School East. Questioning from the audience was pointed at times, but polite.

On the Island, 37.5 percent of students in grades three through eight passed upgraded math tests administered in April, compared with 75.4 percent who passed less difficult tests in 2012. In English, the number of students passing was 39.6 percent, down from 67.2 percent in 2012.

Starting next week, thousands of parents will receive notices from Albany that their children for the first time failed those tests. Many educators have predicted that the resulting shock will prompt increasing numbers of families to join in testing boycotts, which popped up across the region for the first time in April.

Shock is mixed with frustration, educators have said, because many youngsters studied hard to prepare for tests that lasted up to three hours at a stretch.

"My fear is that parents increasingly are going to want to opt out," said Pat Sullivan-Kriss, the Hauppauge schools chief.

Levittown's superintendent, James Grossane, said that opt-outs in his district had driven student test-participation rates below the state-required 95 percent in an elementary school and a middle school.

"I think that movement is only going to gain momentum," Grossane added.

King and his aides have sought to reassure parents and others, by emphasizing that lower scores are not due to any general decline in students' knowledge. Rather, these officials attribute the decline to changes in test questions based on national Common Core academic standards and also to adjustments in cutoff passing scores.

Friday, King noted that some Massachusetts parents mounted similar boycotts in the mid-1990s, when that state moved toward more rigorous tests tied to national standards, as New York is doing now. Massachusetts now ranks first among states in academic achievement.

Resistance to changes in tests is always to be expected, the commissioner said.

"I'm sure that in the 1860s, when we first had Regents exams, there was some anti-testing person with a homing pigeon sending out messages," he said.

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