Ken Wagner, left, makes a presentation on assessment updates during...

Ken Wagner, left, makes a presentation on assessment updates during a Board of Regents meeting at the State Education Building in Albany. (Oct. 21, 2013) Credit: Skip Dickstein

Top state education officials, stung by rising public anger over testing, declared Monday that they will seek ways to relieve some pressures on students and will reach out to parents and teachers who have mobilized against the Department of Education's assessments.

One initiative, outlined at the Board of Regents meeting in Albany, seeks to reduce the number of tests students must take, either through federal waivers or a combination of state and local actions. For example, eighth-graders who are "accelerated" into a ninth-grade algebra course might no longer be required to take year-end tests in both Regents algebra and regular eighth-grade math.

Education Commissioner John B. King Jr., in a fresh move aimed at addressing educators' and parents' concerns, announced he will hold a dozen public forums to deal with questions and concerns over tests and related issues.

Four of those meetings will be held on Long Island -- two in Nassau County and two in Suffolk.

King suffered an embarrassing public setback earlier this month when he canceled four town-hall meetings sponsored by the state PTA -- one in Garden City -- after audience members at earlier forums in Poughkeepsie and Whitesboro became loud and confrontational. Many in Poughkeepsie complained that too little time was set aside for public questions and comments.

The commissioner acknowledged Monday that he needs to take a new tack, telling Regents, "We had one approach that did not work very well."

King's aides said each of the next forums will last two hours, with virtually all that time reserved for questions and comments. The meetings will be scheduled between Nov. 6 and Dec. 9; dates for the forums on Long Island were not set.

Roberta Gerold, president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association, endorsed King's decision to hold a new round of forums. Gerold, who is superintendent of the Middle Country school district in Brookhaven Town, said she supports the relieving of test pressures on students and hopes the commissioner will seek ideas from local districts.

"I hope they're serious about this," she said.

Frustration over testing issues bubbled over Monday, as the Regents argued over whether King and his deputies have been responsive to public concerns.

"I think showing, at times, a sense of indifference in the dialogue creates problems for us," said board member Betty Rosa, a former bilingual teacher and district superintendent from the Bronx.

Robert Bennett, a former Regents board chairman from Buffalo, took issue. "We also need to recognize that the commissioner has been reaching out to communities for the last two-and-a-half years," he said.

Some elected officials have been far more pointed in their criticism. State Assemb. Thomas Abinanti (D-Mount Pleasant) said in a statement last week that King's "rigidity" made him unsuited for the top education post and that the commissioner should resign immediately.

Assembly Democrats, as the majority party in the State Legislature, select Regents who, in turn, appoint the education commissioner.

King's aides in the Education Department made four suggestions for relieving test pressures on students. Most still are in the talking stage, but Regents Monday took action on one policy change.

A Regents committee unanimously approved a proposal to seek a federal waiver from a rule that requires all eighth-graders to take the same state math test. The requirement has proved a hardship for eighth-graders enrolled in accelerated high school algebra courses, who must take both Regents algebra exams and the regular state math tests.

New York State has requested a waiver once before and was turned down by the U.S. Education Department. State officials believe they have a better chance this time, because Tennessee recently won a similar federal exemption.

For the meeting next month, Regents have scheduled discussions on another initiative: reductions in so-called "pre-testing." That's a reference to assessments given in September to help measure how much students learn during the ensuing school year -- academic growth that then is included in teachers' job ratings. At times, the new emphasis on pre-testing has had bizarre consequences -- for example, students taking physics exams before they have attended their first class in the subject.

Regents also plan to discuss whether to seek waivers from federal rules affecting students who have disabilities or who speak limited English. Current rules require most students with disabilities to be tested at their age level, rather than their academic level, and students with limited English skills to be tested in English a year after entering school.

Board of Regents meeting

State education officials, in response to public complaints of excessive student testing, took these actions Monday:

Announced a series of 12 public forums, including four on Long Island, to field questions and comments regarding testing and related issues.

Moved toward requesting a federal waiver from a requirement that eighth-graders enrolled in accelerated high school algebra courses must take both Regents algebra exams and eighth-grade math tests.

State officials scheduled future discussions on these issues:

Reducing the number of "pre-tests" taken each fall to help measure students' academic growth over the ensuing school year.

Allowing students who speak limited English more time than the current one year allotted to develop fluency before being tested in that language.

Testing students with disabilities at their academic or grade level, rather than at their age level, as now required for most.


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