The Board of Regents’ new leaders launched an inquiry Monday into the validity of the state test system and its links to teacher evaluations, citing the need to rebuild public trust following a second annual round of massive exam boycotts on Long Island and across the state.
Regent Judith Johnson of New Hempstead in Rockland County, a consistent critic of state testing and evaluation procedures, was named to head up a new “work group” that will look into issues that strike at the heart of the state’s current system. Johnson said the foremost question revolves around whether there is credible research evidence that test scores of students in elementary and secondary schools are effective in helping evaluate teachers’ classroom performance.
“We’ve lost public trust on why we test, and so we need to make sure we can tell the public why,” said Johnson, a former acting assistant secretary of education in the administration of President Bill Clinton. Johnson joined the 17-member Regents board, which sets statewide education policy, in March 2015.
Recent research — most notably a 2013 project funded by software billionaire Bill Gates — concluded that student scores can be an effective evaluation tool. Following a three-year study that involved about 3,000 teachers, analysts said the most accurate measure of a teacher’s effectiveness was a combination of classroom observations by at least two evaluators, along with student scores counting for between 33 percent and 50 percent of the overall evaluation.
Still, there are growing numbers of skeptics, particularly teachers who over the past several years have often seen their state ratings fluctuate from year to year in a complex system that many regard as statistically unstable. Sheri Lederman, a fourth-grade teacher in Great Neck, has a legal challenge against the system pending in State Supreme Court in Albany.
Monday morning, the Regents’ new chancellor, Betty Rosa of the Bronx, announced Johnson’s appointment in her first official act as the panel’s leader. The work group, yet to be named, is to begin its review of state testing and evaluations in early May.
Johnson said the work will take months to complete, and the goal is to come up with recommendations for the full Regents board and state lawmakers early next year. Should the group decide that student test scores are invalid for rating teachers — and many Albany insiders expect that to be the case — it would be up to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and lawmakers to decide whether to rescind a state law that now links scores and evaluations.
The new inquiry also comes after the Regents, amid controversy and public outcry, in December passed a four-year moratorium that prevents test scores from being used punitively against students or in teacher job ratings.
Creation of the work group could add to pressures on Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, who before this month’s Common Core exams had urged parents to have their children tested. Elia took office in July with the support of Rosa’s predecessor, Merryl Tisch of Manhattan, who was an outspoken advocate of testing and teacher evaluations.
At one point Monday during a Regents discussion about testing, Elia turned to Johnson and said, “I’ll be happy to talk to you about this in more detail, so you’ll know I’m telling you the truth.”
Both Elia and Johnson told a reporter later that the remark in no way implied that the commissioner’s honesty was being questioned.
Test boycotts last week served notice that opposition among parents ran even higher than last year on Long Island. Leaders of the opt-out movement contend the linkage between tests and job ratings puts undue strain on students and teachers alike.
A Newsday survey conducted Friday on the last day of state math testing in grades three through eight found that 52.8 percent of eligible students in Nassau and Suffolk counties refused to take the assessment. The number of students opting out was 87,796 in 106 districts reporting out of a total 124 systems Islandwide.
At the same time last year, Newsday found that slightly more than 66,000 students, or 46.5 percent of those eligible, boycotted tests in 99 districts reporting.
A statewide count by boycott leaders, based largely on news accounts, indicated that more than 178,000 students sat out tests overall, with about half of all districts counted. One leader, Lisa Rudley, said she expected a final count to eventually show that the statewide number equals or excels last year’s estimate of 240,000 students statewide.
Rudley, a Westchester County parent, welcomed the Regents’ latest action.
“I think that’s long overdue,” said Rudley, a founder of a statewide test-protest group, New York State Allies for Public Education.