Stop over-testing, slow Common Core, Suffolk superintendents tell state

Students participate in an SAT prep course at Students participate in an SAT prep course at Mineola High School. (Oct. 28, 2013) Photo Credit: Barry Sloan

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School superintendents throughout Suffolk County are uniting to send embattled state Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. a strong message: Stop over-testing, slow down the Common Core curriculum and rethink teacher and principal evaluations.

One letter -- a detailed, four-page missive supported by all 18 superintendents in the Western Suffolk BOCES district -- was sent to King this week. A second, from the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association, which represents the county's 68 public school districts, is being fine-tuned and will be sent in a few days, said Roberta Gerold, the group's president and superintendent of the Middle Country school district.

Both are meant to spotlight educators' ideas for changes before King attends two forums next week on Long Island, their authors said.

The school leaders said the state should slow introduction of new exams, reduce testing, re-evaluate the links between student test performance and teacher evaluations and give teachers more time to prepare for classroom instruction required by rigorous Common Core national academic standards.

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Packed with suggestions

The BOCES letter, packed with suggestions for King and the state Department of Education, was signed by Michael Mensch, the district's chief operating officer.

"The number of new initiatives has not only caused unnecessary turmoil and anxiety, they have distracted all of us from the important work we must do," the letter says. "The abrupt changes in curriculum, testing and evaluation now need some fine-tuning to benefit our students."

That letter is only the first salvo from Suffolk school leaders. The forthcoming letter from the superintendents association will be similar, and request that test assessments be released as quickly as possible, Gerold said.

King has faced increasing criticism from parents and educators over state exams and curriculum changes. He canceled state PTA-sponsored appearances last month at four town-hall forums -- one in Garden City -- when the first two meetings, held upstate and attended by hundreds of parents and teachers, became confrontational.

That was followed by a testy Board of Regents meeting, when some members questioned whether King and his deputies have been responsive to public concerns. The commissioner acknowledged that students may be undergoing too much testing, and quickly embarked on a series of forums statewide -- with four scheduled on the Island, two in Suffolk and two in Nassau.

"The disconnect between the practitioners in the field and the leadership in the state Education Department is monumental at this point," said Copiague Superintendent Charles Leunig, one of the 18 school leaders in support of the Nov. 5 BOCES letter. "Clearly the chorus was growing, and it seemed as if his attention had finally been gotten. "

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Education Department spokesman Dennis Tompkins said the commissioner had received and read the letter.

Of its main points, he noted that the annual tests now administered are required by federal law and the evaluations of teachers and principals are required by state law.

"We can't change that and we only implement it, and we are going full speed ahead with that," Tompkins said.

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No Common Core delay

King has said the state will not delay implementation of Common Core standards, but he is open to changes going forward.

Mensch said his letter is intended to be part of the public record at Tuesday's forum, to be held at Ward Melville High School in East Setauket from 6 to 8 p.m. Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch and Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport) also are expected to attend.

The forums are open to the public, but speakers are limited. At Ward Melville, for example, superintendents of districts within the 2nd Senate District will bring a group of representatives from each district, and also will select several speakers from each district to address King. Education Department officials said the format ensures that each district can be heard.

Another forum is scheduled Wednesday at Mineola High School, from 4 to 6:30 p.m. Later meetings are set for Nov. 26 and Dec. 9.

"It is a natural progression when the hearings were announced," Mensch said Thursday of the motivation for the BOCES letter. "They are not quite open forums, and the superintendents and I felt strongly that we wanted to take the opportunity to be heard."

The 18 school districts within Western Suffolk BOCES have a combined enrollment of 88,000 students. Leunig said he is "extremely hopeful" the state will consider the educators' recommendations.

With Joan Gralla

and Lauren R. Harrison

Plea to the chief

Main points in Western Suffolk BOCES letter to state Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. include:

Slow down implementation of new exams tied to Common Core academic standards, using this year and next as transition years.

Reduce over-testing and revise the testing schedule to allow more instructional time.

Pursue federal waivers related to testing that affect eighth-graders who take ninth-grade algebra, students who are English Language Learners and those who are developmentally disabled.

Eliminate "timing" restrictions on math and English Language Arts tests to reduce student anxiety about completion, substituting a suggested time frame and giving reasonable extra time for students to complete tests.

Reevaluate components of teacher and principal evaluations, especially the amount of job ratings based on student test scores.

Put a three-year moratorium on tying staffers' evaluations to student test scores.

Provide alternatives to implementing statewide computer-based testing, such as a gradual phase-in or allowing traditional test methods to continue.

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