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Schools chief: State might extend moratorium on using student scores to rate teachers

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia is seen at

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia is seen at the Tilles Center in Greenvale on May 2. Credit: Howard Schnapp

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia told a capacity crowd of school board delegates Friday that the state could potentially extend its moratorium on using student test scores to evaluate the job performance of teachers.

New York State’s system of evaluating teachers, known as Annual Professional Performance Reviews, or APPR, is one of the most talked-about topics in education. On Long Island and statewide, opposition to test-linked job ratings have sparked boycotts of state exams involving hundreds of thousands of students.

Many teachers remain apprehensive about their ratings, because the statewide moratorium is due to expire in June. Elia has suggested the policymaking Board of Regents to whom she reports might seek to ease tensions by postponing enforcement for a longer period.

“The fact that somebody knows that something is going to be down the road even — is going to be coming — they are stressed,” the commissioner told more than 700 representatives of local school boards attending a Manhattan convention. “I know that the Regents have shared this publicly, so I'm going to say it is possible that they may choose to do an extension of that moratorium. But I would say to you, we still have work to do." 

School board trustees, like other New Yorkers, voice mixed feelings over what approach the state should take next in dealing with teacher evaluations. Some at Friday’s session agreed with the commissioner that an extended moratorium would work, until the state finds a permanent solution.

“If this gives you more time to do it right, then take more time to do it right,” said Susan Bergtraum, of Old Westbury, who sits on the Nassau BOCES board.

Bergtraum is immediate past president of the New York State School Boards Association.

Many trustees hope, however, that state lawmakers prove more willing during the coming year than they have been in the past to rewrite the law mandating evaluations.

“I think there’s a better way to evaluate teachers than linking it to test scores, and that’s linking it to teaching standards,” said Timothy Kremer, the association’s executive director.

Elia, who took over as commissioner in July 2015, has dealt with public complaints over the testing policy since her first days in office. By then, New York had endured three years of test boycotts — a movement that started with a few hundred students in Rockville Centre and other scattered locations before gradually mushrooming into hundreds of thousands across the state.

The protests, which began under Elia's predecessor, John King, were sparked largely by a state law requiring that up to 50 percent of the job ratings of teachers and principals be based on students' test scores. Opponents of the system, mostly parents and teachers, contended that the ratings put too much pressure on students and faculty members.

Under Elia, the state has made multiple attempts to ease tensions over testing — such as shortening exams and delaying enforcement of the law on job evaluations. Both the commissioner and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo are under pressure to come up with a different approach.

From the beginning, Long Island was the movement's hub. More than 90,000 students in grades three through eight throughout Nassau and Suffolk counties refused to take the state's English Language Arts test in April, representing nearly 50 percent of those eligible, according to Newsday surveys.  

In September, Elia announced that the percentage of students boycotting tests statewide had dropped to 18 percent — down a point from the year before. Nevertheless, more than 210,000 students across New York had refused to participate in the exam, out of about 1 million eligible. 

The boycott movement also has made its influence felt on local school boards. Jeanette Deutermann, of Bellmore, chief organizer of a parent network, Long Island Opt Out, estimates that her group over the past four years has endorsed 175 successful board candidates, many of whom have helped oust incumbents. 

One driving purpose behind such endorsements, organizers said, was to persuade districts to provide students who refused to be tested with alternative activities, such as reading books of their choice, rather than simply sitting at their desks. 

"There's only so much work you can do from the outside — you need someone inside," Deutermann said. 

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