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Board of Regents shortens English, math testing times

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, left, speaks as

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, left, speaks as Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa and other Regents listen during a meeting at the state Education Department in Albany on Monday, June 12, 2017. Credit: Hans Pennink

ALBANY — The Board of Regents voted Monday to cut by one-third the amount of time that students in grades three through eight spend taking much-debated state exams in English Language Arts and mathematics, starting next spring.

The change by the state’s education policy board trims the test days from six to four, meaning the English and math tests would each be given during two days rather than three. About 1.2 million students in those grades statewide — including 200,000 students on Long Island — are eligible to take the exams.

It is the latest in a series of revisions since the state imposed tougher tests, based on Common Core academic standards, in spring 2013. Grassroots opposition to the exams’ rushed implementation and to the tests themselves sparked an unprecedented test-refusal movement, with the Island as its epicenter, that marked its fifth year this spring.

Last year and in 2015, 20 percent of eligible students statewide in grades three through eight opted out of the state tests, according to the state Education Department. The agency has not released the percentage of students who boycotted this spring’s tests.

Even the Common Core name recently was changed, underscoring the state’s new direction, to the Next Generation Learning Standards.

“This decision not only reduces the amount of time children will spend taking tests, but also returns valuable instructional time to our teachers,” Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa, of the Bronx, said in a statement.

The vote was 15 in favor and two abstaining. The board’s vice chancellor, Andrew Brown of Rochester, and Regent Lester Young of Brooklyn, withheld their votes and objected that the decision to cut back the days of test administration was too rushed.

“I imagine it will make a lot of people happy,” said Young, a former New York City school administrator. “But I know that’s not why I’m here.”

Supporters of shortening the time given to testing said the change could encourage many students on the Island and elsewhere who have boycotted the exams to resume taking them.

Test opponents, however, declared that their campaign to ease exam pressures will not cease. New York State Allies for Public Education, a statewide coalition of parents, teachers and others, reiterated its call for tests that are more “developmentally appropriate.”

“Did the needle move in the right direction? Yes,” said Diane Venezia Livingston, a Port Washington parent and founder of a local group that has opted children out of state tests. “Did it move enough? Not even close.”

Another argument in favor of a quick Regents decision was the time needed by Questar Assessment Inc. to prepare and field-test exams to be given next spring. The Minneapolis-based firm holds the state contract for creating state standardized tests.

Still, some debating the issue Monday suggested the board was going too far in an effort to placate parents and unions opposed to a testing system in which scores are tied to teacher evaluations. In December 2015, with the public opposition to state-driven education reforms, the Regents placed a moratorium on linkage of student scores to teacher ratings until 2019-20.

Before the vote, Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia told a Regents committee that devoting less time to the tests could help deal with the test boycotts.

“It helps encourage test participation, we believe,” Elia said.

The average time allotted for current tests ranges as high as 90 minutes daily over three days in English, along with equal time for math.

Assessments are officially untimed; students can take as long as they want. Still, 70 to 90 minutes a day is considered the norm, with the longer sessions considered average for older students.

The latest exams were given in April and early May, and more than 50 percent of eligible students on Long Island refused to take them. The opt-out movement swept up more than 90,000 students in Nassau and Suffolk counties alone, according to Newsday surveys of the Island’s 124 districts — the biggest concentration of opt-outs recorded either statewide or at the national level.

Annual assessments are required by federal law, but states have latitude in setting standards, testing schedules and the like.

Monday’s review of testing time is part of a broader effort by Elia and the Regents to deal with parent and union protests against the state’s assessment system and its ties to teacher job evaluations. Elia and her Education Department staff report to the Regents board, which sets policy including exam standards.

After the latest round of testing, the Regents on May 9 renamed the Common Core academic standards to the New Generation Learning Standards. The revamped standards relax some requirements, especially in reading and writing.

Originally, the board was to approve the revamped standards this week. Action was postponed, however, to give the panel more time to review public comments on the revisions, both pro and con.

Parent leaders of the boycott movement have urged a move toward using less class time for tests, saying that current schedules put far too much pressure on children. Reduced time does have some drawbacks, however.

Consultants at the National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment, a nonprofit research group in Dover, New Hampshire, have cautioned that shorter exams would be less reliable in measuring academic growth of individual students, and also would make it more difficult to track overall trends in achievement over time.

Roger Tilles of Great Neck, who represents Long Island on the board, said during Monday morning’s discussion that the possibility of accurate tracking of achievement was unlikely in any case, because so many students had opted out.

Tilles reiterated his own skepticism over the length of current exams.

“I took the bar exam, and it took a lot less time than this test, and I wasn’t in third grade,” Tilles said.

Some veteran school superintendents on the Island, led by William Johnson of the Rockville Centre district, have contended that testing in English and math could be cut to as little as two hours overall if assessments took an “adaptive” approach. Such tests are delivered via computer, and adapt questions to the skill levels of individual students.

The state’s current exams are not adaptive. However, at least 59 school systems in Nassau and Suffolk have purchased adaptive-style tests from private organizations for use within their own schools.

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