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New Regents chancellor endorses state test opt-outs

From left, Vice Chancellor Andrew Brown, Chancellor Betty

From left, Vice Chancellor Andrew Brown, Chancellor Betty Rosa and state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia at a news conference after state Board of Regents elections on  Monday, March 21, 2016.   Credit: Hans Pennink

The newly elected chancellor of the state Board of Regents said Monday that she would pull her own children out of state tests if she were acting simply as a parent, bolstering critics who favor dramatic changes in the state’s Common Core testing system.

Betty Rosa, a former Bronx special education teacher, principal and superintendent, noted at a news conference held minutes after her election that the state’s efforts to revise its much-criticized tests for grades three through eight will take another two years to complete.

She expressed sympathy for parents who in the meantime are trying to decide whether to have their children take the exams, scheduled to be given statewide next month.

“I want to be crystal clear,” said Rosa, who will head the 17-member Regents panel starting April 1. “If I was a parent and not on the Board of Regents, I would opt out at this time.”

Rosa’s selection marked a dramatic shift in tone for the Regents board, where a majority of board members in the past had supported higher academic standards and other reforms, first enthusiastically and then with growing reluctance.

Rosa has voiced similar sentiments in the past. But her first official statement on opt-outs as chancellor-elect startled many school administrators, who have tried in recent weeks to downplay controversy over testing and the linkage of students’ scores with teachers’ job evaluations.

School superintendents and their representatives in Albany have said that the first priority now should be to win support for an extra $1.7 billion in state aid in the 2016-17 school year. That is the minimum needed, they said, to keep school programs running at current levels.

Districts are particularly dependent on state financial aid this year, because a combination of low inflation and tight state caps on local property taxes makes it all but impossible to raise much revenue on their own.

“I’m disappointed with that statement, I really am,” said Lorna Lewis, superintendent of Plainview-Old Bethpage schools, referring to Rosa’s remarks about opting out of tests. “I want to see children meet high standards, and I think we need a uniform way of showing whether children are meeting those standards or not. I want to see people engaged in that process, not disconnected. Opting out means that you’re disengaged.”

Lewis is president of the Nassau County Council of School Superintendents, representing districts with students who are among the highest scorers in the state.

The steady drumbeat of criticism over Common Core academic standards and testing has continued to grow. A particular target is a state law, pushed through the legislature in April by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, that requires districts to base up to 50 percent of teacher evaluations on test results.

Cuomo backtracked to a degree in the face of large-scale testing boycotts, convening an advisory panel that recommended a four-year moratorium on full enforcement of that law. Regents in December approved the moratorium, but stipulated that teachers would continue getting job ratings on an advisory basis.

On Sunday, Todd Kaminsky of Long Beach, a member of the state Assembly’s Democratic majority, announced the introduction of a comprehensive package of legislation dealing with tests and related issues.

One proposed bill would repeal the section of law linking state test scores to teacher evaluations. The measure also would authorize the Regents to appoint a panel of experts to design a new evaluation system.

Kaminsky is running for the state Senate seat vacated by Dean Skelos of Rockville Centre, who was convicted in December of bribery, extortion and conspiracy charges. The race will be decided in a special election on April 19.

Republican opponents, who are trying to hold on to their narrow majority in the Senate, contended that Kaminsky, if elected, would help look after New York City interests, where Democrats have their power base, rather than tending to the concerns of Long Islanders.

Parent leaders of the opt-out movement on Monday hailed both Rosa’s election and Kaminsky’s proposals as signs they are gaining ground.

“Betty has been so consistent on what’s best for kids — she’s never wavered,” said Jeanette Deutermann, a North Bellmore parent and founder of the activist group Long Island Opt Out. “She’s right that parents have a right and responsibility to protect their children from flawed tests.”

Deutermann described Kaminsky’s legislation as “an absolute necessity.”

Lisa Rudley, a Westchester County parent, together with Deutermann and other leaders of the anti-testing movement, issued a statement describing the day as “a huge step in the right direction for New York’s children and public education.” The statement went on to say that Rosa’s selection would help rebuild trust among parents who had grown suspicious of state education reform initiatives.

Those leaders, all members of an umbrella group, New York State Allies for Public Education, also noted that three new members are joining the Regents board. Among those who are leaving the panel is outgoing Chancellor Merryl Tisch, who had consistently voted for regulations linking tests and teacher ratings.

Rosa herself emphasized the importance of rebuilding trust at her first news conference, though she would not commit herself when asked repeatedly by reporters if she would like to see a decline in the number of test boycotters. The Regents’ new vice chancellor, Andrew Brown of Rochester, an attorney, said he hopes for reductions in test refusals.

Common Core testing is a major educational issue across the state — especially on Long Island, where parents pulled more than 70,000 students in grades three through eight out of English and math tests in spring 2015. Statewide, more than 200,000 students in those grades — about 20 percent of those eligible for testing — were involved in test boycotts, the largest such boycott in the nation.

In the next round of state testing, the English Language Arts test is scheduled April 5-7 and math exams are set for April 13-15. On the Island, parents and educators involved in the opt-out movement have been holding a series of community forums to encourage test refusals.

Stephen Sigmund, who represents a business-oriented group that supports the Common Core academic standards, took exception to Rosa’s remarks after attending the news conference.

“We disagree on that,” said Sigmund, who is executive director of High Achievement New York, a nonprofit advocacy group. “Now she did say, and we’re hopeful at this, that she’s prepared to change her mind based on the improvement of the tests. But it concerns us that she would say on Day One that, as a parent, she would opt her children out.”

High Achievement represents a coalition of groups including the Business Council of New York State, the American Association of University Women, local chambers of commerce and civil rights groups.

Earlier Monday, in a brief speech accepting her nomination as chancellor, Rosa called for support of students who have disabilities. She formerly served as a special education teacher, principal of a school that served special education students, and superintendent in New York City.

“Every student in our country is entitled to the same quality of education regardless of background,” said Rosa, who replaces Tisch at the end of this month.

Rosa, 64, who spent her early childhood in Puerto Rico, was approved as chancellor in a 15-0 vote, with two abstentions.

Brown, 57, was elected vice chancellor in a 17-0 vote. That position is being vacated by Anthony Bottar of Syracuse.

One pressing issue facing the Regents revolves around the state’s timetable for future evaluations of teachers.

The evaluation law, amended in April, requires local school districts to revise their plans for rating teachers by June 30 and to obtain state Education Department approval of those plans by Sept. 1. Districts failing to meet the deadline risk partial loss of state financial aid.

Many school administrators said they need more time to make revisions, especially because those changes must win agreement by local teacher unions.

Administrators added that districts, in the meantime, should be allowed to conduct evaluations using plans already approved by the state under an earlier version of the law.

“It’s impossible to conceive that students would be more hurt by having teachers evaluated under the old law than by having their schools lose state aid,” said Henry Grishman, superintendent of Jericho schools.

Grishman is a former president of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said at Monday’s news conference that superintendents had been told they would be given a little more time if they don’t meet the first target date of June 30. Neither Elia nor Rosa indicated any flexibility in the Sept. 1 deadline, which is set by law.

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