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Regents retreat on some testing, evaluation requirements

Regents Lester W. Young, Jr., and Regent Wade

Regents Lester W. Young, Jr., and Regent Wade S. Norwood, center, talk with New York State Education Commissioner Dr. John B. King, Jr., right, during a break after his presentation of the Regents Common Core Work Group report to the Board of Regents in Albany on Feb. 10, 2014. Credit: Philip Kamrass

The state Board of Regents moved Monday to ease some testing and evaluation requirements for students and teachers, the first significant retreat after a storm of criticism statewide over the rapid rollout of Common Core academic standards.

Chancellor Merryl Tisch said the board, in approving recommendations of a six-member advisory group, was responding to complaints at public forums that the reform agenda has been rushed and haphazard -- for example, by giving tougher tests last spring without providing teachers the curriculum guides needed to prepare their students.

"We've heard the concerns expressed at the hearings and forums, and we regret that the urgency of our work, and the unevenness of implementation, have caused frustration and anxiety for some of our educators, students, and their families," she said.

Both Tisch and state Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. repeated their determination to proceed with implementation of tougher curricula and tests, which they insist are essential to reducing college dropout rates and preparing students for 21st-century careers.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, in a statement last night, commended the Regents and King "for working to find a balance that supports educators through the crucial work of raising expectations, with a sense of urgency to serve all students."

The Regents conference room in Albany was packed as the board discussed the 19-point plan submitted by the Tisch-appointed work group.

During more than two hours of debate, several Regents complained that the revisions -- approved 15-2 -- were pushed through with little reflection. Two board members said they had not seen the work group's report until 9 p.m. Sunday.

"We rushed into Common Core and wound up with issues," said Regent Betty Rosa of the Bronx. "I don't want to rush into this." She voted "no," with Regent Kathleen Cashin of Brooklyn.

Delay on higher scores

New York has been at the forefront in implementing the Common Core academic standards -- a key factor in its winning nearly $700 million in federal Race to the Top school improvement money.

Under the recommendations approved Monday, high school students will be allowed to continue graduating with minimum scores of 65 on state exams until 2022. At that point, required scores would rise to 75 on English exams and 80 in algebra -- levels deemed evidence of readiness for college.

The time span means, in effect, that the higher scores will be required only for students who have been exposed to the Common Core curriculum since the elementary grades.

The Regents also agreed that any teachers who face firing as the result of "ineffective" job ratings under the state's new evaluation system will have a chance to appeal, on grounds they were not well-prepared to deliver lessons based on the Common Core curriculum.

This provision would be limited to job ratings for the 2012-13 and 2013-14 school years. Teachers and principals who are rated "ineffective" for two consecutive years under the new system face the possibility of job loss.

Other board members who have criticized flaws in Common Core implementation in the past voted in favor of the changes, citing an urgent need to preserve positive aspects of the national standards, which have been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia.

"I am very glad to make every effort to, what I believe is, save Common Core," said Roger Tilles of Great Neck, who represents Long Island on the board.

The Regents faced growing pressure to fast-track their decision. Members of the board are elected to five-year terms by the State Legislature, and four incumbents are up for re-election next month. A statewide organization of educators and parents is pushing for their ouster.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) told reporters that he thought the Regents' actions "alleviate some of the tensions parents have had."

Silver added, though, that lawmakers might have to make moves themselves. Both he and Republican leaders in the state Senate have called for a two-year moratorium on using Common Core tests to rate teachers.

Gov. Cuomo weighs in

The Regents' vote technically was preliminary, although it included all 17 members. A second, final vote is scheduled for this morning.

Follow-up votes usually pass routinely. But a twist came Monday afternoon when Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo weighed in with criticism of the Regents' revision regarding teacher ratings.

"Today's recommendations are another in a series of missteps by the Board of Regents that suggests the time has come to seriously reexamine its capacity and performance," said the governor, who has cited the toughened teacher-evaluation system as a hallmark of his administration.

Cuomo, like Silver, indicated new legislation would be required to deal with Common Core. The governor last week appointed an advisory commission to make recommendations.

Reaction from parent and teacher groups was mostly negative, both at the state level and also on Long Island.

Maria Neira, a vice president of the 600,000-member New York State United Teachers, said the board's steps do not go far enough.

NYSUT, the state's largest teacher union, will continue working with sympathetic leaders in the Legislature to clamp a two-year moratorium on using Common Core test results to decide class placements of students and rate teachers, she said.

Parent leaders agreed the revisions fall far short of the sweeping moratorium they seek.

"Really, nothing they've recommended is going to make a dent in the problems we face," said Jeanette Deutermann, a North Bellmore parent and leader of a regional movement to have students opt out of state tests.King, in outlining the proposed revisions Monday, said the state wishes to take a thoughtful approach.

"But I don't think the need to raise standards is any less urgent now than it was in 2009," King said, referring to when the state started discussing the move toward tougher courses and exams.

Board of Regents action

The board voted to:

-- Delay until 2022 the graduation requirement that high school students must pass tougher, Common-Core-aligned Regents tests in English and math with higher "college- and career-ready" scores. The current passing grade of 65 will stand.

-- Have Education Department advise districts against using state test results in grades 3-8 to make decisions on student promotion or placement.

-- Clarify meaning of new test scores for grades 3-8 in English Language Arts and math. A "Level 2" score on Common Core tests is "on track" for eventual Regents' passage.

-- Limit the time students can spend on local standardized tests required by the teacher evaluation system, capping it at 1 percent of overall instructional time.

-- Allow appeals by teachers and principals rated "ineffective" under the new evaluation system because of student performance on Common-Core-aligned tests given in the 2012-13 and/or 2013-14 school years.

-- Lobby the governor and State Legislature for:

$10 million in state funds to develop a test to better measure the progress of Spanish-speaking English language learners.

$8.4 million in state funds to print more versions of state tests, so more questions can be released to teachers, students and parents for review and study.

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