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New York will not join federal try-out of exam alternatives

The decision announced Tuesday means that, at least for now, the state will continue to rely on controversial Common Core tests.

Ninth-grade students work together in a project-based learning

Ninth-grade students work together in a project-based learning work room at Comsewogue High School in Port Jefferson Station on Monday, Nov. 13, 2017. Photo Credit: Barry Sloan

ALBANY — New York State will not join in a federal pilot project aimed at developing alternative ways of assessing students’ knowledge without using traditional standardized tests, officials announced Tuesday.

The state’s decision, termed a disappointment by some local school administrators, means that Albany — for the time being, at least — will continue relying on Common Core tests administered in grades three through eight and in high schools.

Such tests are highly controversial on Long Island, where approximately 50 percent of all eligible students in elementary and middle schools boycotted English and math exams last spring. Some local educators had voiced hope that use of alternative measures — for example, written portfolios — might help calm public discontent.

Tuesday’s announcement was triggered, state authorities said, by the fact that the U.S. Education Department included no offers of financial assistance to states earlier this month when it released details of its alternative assessment program.

New York State’s Education Department in recent years has struggled to fund its own extensive exam program. The agency actually stopped offering some tests — most notably, for high school foreign language courses.

Emily DeSantis, the department’s spokeswoman, said the agency remains interested in alternative assessments, but added that “the fact that there is no additional federal funding available to implement the pilot means the department must focus its resources on more immediate assessment priorities.”

More than 40 consortium high schools in New York City already offer students a chance to complete projects, such as written essays, in lieu of taking state Regents exams in certain subjects. This is done under a longstanding state waiver.

In recent years, several suburban districts in Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester counties also have begun discussions or actual offerings of alternative tests, though they have continued using Regents exams as well.

The superintendent of one of those districts, Comsewogue, which serves Port Jefferson Station, took exception to Tuesday’s state announcement.

“To dismiss this on the basis of money without a careful look is disappointing,” schools chief Joseph Rella said.

Rella said that about 300 students in the ninth and 10th grades at the district’s high school are using alternative measures of achievement such as verbal classroom presentations this year, in addition to preparing for Regents exams.

The schools chief added that a preliminary performance review of 50 students from last year showed that those using alternative measures scored “significantly” higher on Regents exams than those using the exams alone.

Pilot projects in alternative assessment are authorized in the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which was signed into law in 2015.

Like earlier federal education laws, ESSA requires states to provide the same uniform tests in English and math to all student capable of academic work.

The new law makes an exception, however. Under this provision, the U.S. Education Department can authorize up to seven states to allow selected school districts to experiment with alternative measures.

Since 2016, New Hampshire has allowed students in some schools to demonstrate proficiency through projects rather than paper-and-pencil tests.

Some New York State officials said Tuesday that reported problems with New Hampshire’s program were a factor, along with funding concerns, in their decision not to participate in the federal pilot.

Several members of New York’s Board of Regents, which makes education policy, said they would continue to look for ways that the state could offer alternative assessments without federal involvement. State Education Department staffers who report to the Regents cautioned, however, that any such program might take several years to establish.

“The Regents are committed to looking at alternative assessments over the next 12 to 18 months,” said Roger Tilles of Great Neck, who represents Long Island on the Regents board. “It is going to take time.”

Leaders of state and regional test-boycott movements said they had been leery of more federal involvement in assessment programs, and preferred that New York develop its own alternatives — a route that, they said, the state is legally entitled to pursue.

“New York State has a lot of leeway in how they handle assessments, so it’s just a question of what New York State decides to do,” said Jeanette Deutermann of Bellmore, founder of the Long Island Opt Out movement.

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