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NYSUT chief to parents: Children should boycott state tests

A file photo shows New York State United

A file photo shows New York State United Teachers President Karen Magee speaking with reporters in a hallway at the Capitol on Thursday, June 19, 2014, in Albany. Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS / Mike Groll

The leader of the state's 600,000-member teacher union Monday urged parents to have their children boycott state tests next month, even as Albany lawmakers rushed to revamp a system that uses students' scores on those exams to help rate teachers' job performance.

Karen Magee, president of New York State United Teachers, announced at an Albany news conference that the politically influential group would step up resistance to the standardized tests administered each spring to students in grades 3-8.

"At this point in time, yes, we are urging parents to opt out," Magee said. "We need to do what's right for kids in New York State."

It was the first time Magee has publicly called for parents to have their children refuse to take the tests, a NYSUT spokesman said. The union previously had stated its support for parents who chose to withdraw children from tests, but had not directly urged a boycott.

The call was the latest salvo in an issue that has galvanized parents and educators. More than 1 million students statewide are eligible for the tests.

In Nassau and Suffolk counties, state testing and evaluation policies have been denounced at more than a dozen forums in recent weeks. On Long Island, the activist drive made a significant impact last spring, and ultimately tens of thousands of students on the Island and statewide in grades 3-8 skipped state tests in English Language Arts and mathematics.

Magee, a former elementary teacher in Westchester County's Harrison district, suggested Monday that if enough students skip testing, the results would have "no merit or value whatsoever."

Asked by a reporter if that was the union's goal, the union chief replied, "At this point in time, it's the best way to go."

Federal rules require participation by at least 95 percent of eligible students. A school where participation drops below that level may be flagged by the state and required to draft improvement plans.

Magee took over NYSUT a year ago, ousting former president Richard Iannuzzi, who used to head a union local in Central Islip. The key election issue was teachers' rising opposition to job ratings based partly on students' test scores.

Her statements drew immediate blasts from some state and civic leaders.

Merryl Tisch, chancellor of the state Board of Regents, which sets education policy, said that further test boycotts would deprive more struggling students and their parents of data needed to spur improvements.

"It's time to stop making noise to protect adults and start speaking up for the students," she said.

Stephen Sigmund, executive director of a private group, High Achievement New York, said, "Those who continue to trumpet an irresponsible move to have children refuse to take state assessments are putting their politics over improving education for every child."

Sigmund's group is a consortium of business and education groups that support national Common Core academic standards, upon which more rigorous state tests are based.

Leading state lawmakers Monday described changes to teacher job evaluations as one of the last issues that need resolution as they scramble to approve a final budget package. Wednesday is the state's official deadline for budget passage.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo had proposed that 50 percent of a teacher's ratings be based on their students' test performance, and he tied that goal to future allocations of state financial aid to schools -- a position that drew an outcry from district administrators and teachers alike.

Current state law requires that at least 20 percent of teachers' rating be based on test scores or the equivalent, with the remainder based on a combination of locally selected assessments, classroom observations and other criteria.

A Cuomo administration official said Monday night that agreement had been reached on changing the evaluation system, with the state Education Department assigned the task. The plan requires those changes to be completed by June -- a tight schedule for a Regents board that is in the middle of a search for a new commissioner. Regents select commissioners.

Many teachers on the Island have described themselves as shaken by the ongoing debate in Albany.

"It's very disheartening and very sad that children are being put in the middle of this political game," said Laura Pokorny, a sixth-grade science teacher and president of the Plainedge district's 285- member teachers union.

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