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Education commissioner on Long Island launches hearings on draft state plan

New York State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, with

New York State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, with Roger Tilles of Great Neck, who represents Long Island on the state Board of Regents, speaks at Half Hollow Hills High School East in Dix Hills on May 11, 2017. They kicked off a series of public hearings on a draft state plan to carry out requirements of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

A regional public hearing on Long Island, sponsored Thursday by state education officials hoping to collect comments on standardized testing and related controversies, drew such a small number of speakers that it ended after an hour’s discussion — 90 minutes ahead of schedule.

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia called for the Dix Hills forum, which began shortly after 6 p.m., in order to kick off a series of 13 meetings across the state. The purpose of the hearings is to review a draft state plan for boosting academic achievement and encouraging student participation in state tests.

Thursday night’s turnout by about 50 educators and parent activists was quiet and mannerly — a marked contrast to the crowds of angry teachers and parents who showed up at state conferences in 2014 to boo Elia’s predecessor, former Commissioner John King Jr.

Roger Tilles of Great Neck, who represents the Island on the state Board of Regents and co-chaired Thursday’s session, speculated that the light attendance might reflect the fact that public anger over state testing has cooled as Elia and the Regents have shown a more sympathetic understanding of objections raised by parents and teachers.

Tilles said he particularly remembered one confrontational meeting attended by King in Poughkeepsie. “People were throwing shoes,” Tilles said.

Whatever the public’s mood, any change has not yet been reflected in a lessening of test boycotts across the Island. The latest round of state testing in English and math saw test refusals by more than 50 percent of the region’s eligible students in grades three through eight.

The latest hearings are intended to collect public feedback on the state’s recently released draft plan to carry out requirements of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.

That law, signed by President Barack Obama in December 2015, gives states greater authority to regulate public school performance than the statute it replaced — the No Child Left Behind legislation of President George W. Bush’s administration.

Eleven people spoke for three minutes each at Thursday’s meeting, with remarks evenly divided between those critical and supportive of Elia’s administration.

David Gaines, music director for the Massapequa district, said he and colleagues were pleased that the state had included language in its draft plan supportive of their subject area. “We have put children first,” Gaines said.

But Jeanette Deutermann, a North Bellmore parent and founder of the Long Island Opt Out network, said she feared that the draft plan could result in a ratings system that labels schools as failing whenever large numbers of students boycott tests. “We must move beyond shaming,” Deutermann said.

Public comment on the draft plan, either in writing or delivered at the regional forums, will be accepted through June 16. The Regents board, which sets much of the state’s education policy, is expected in September to adopt a final plan, which will be submitted to the U.S. Department of Education for approval.

One segment of the state’s draft plan would seek to deal with test boycotts by requiring districts with noncomplying schools to adopt their own local plans designed to boost test participation. Other segments seek to boost high school graduation rates statewide to an average 95 percent from a current 82 percent, and encourage more students in such schools to take coursework in college-level programs such as Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate.

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