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Hundreds of NY superintendents petition Congress to abolish testing mandate

Amid empty desks, students at Southside Middle School

Amid empty desks, students at Southside Middle School in Rockville Centre take the Common Core mathematics test on Friday, April 24, 2015. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

More than 340 school superintendents across the state, including 54 on Long Island, petitioned Congress this week to abolish requirements for annual testing of students in grades three through eight -- exams that have been hallmarks of national education policy for more than a decade.

"Education standards should be state-developed, not dictated by federal mandates," said the letter from the New York State Council of School Superintendents to lawmakers in the Senate and House of Representatives. It also called for billions of dollars in extra federal aid to public schools.

The missive from the school chiefs reflected frustrations with a testing system that was boycotted in April by more than 200,000 students statewide -- the biggest such movement in the country.

Those opting out of the English language arts and math tests included 70,000-plus students in public schools in Nassau and Suffolk counties. The region, historically a stronghold of high student achievement, has emerged as the epicenter of the anti-testing movement.

The letter's signers represented nearly half of the superintendents in the state. Among them were two regional members of the state council's executive committee: Patricia Sullivan-Kriss, superintendent of Hauppauge schools, and Phyllis Harrington, Oceanside's superintendent.

Since 2001, the federal government has required states to test students each year in English and math at six grade levels in elementary and middle school, and once in each subject during high school. The requirement is embedded in the "No Child Left Behind" law pushed through Congress by then-President George W. Bush.

The superintendents' letter urged that this system be replaced by one that would assess students at three levels -- once in elementary school, once during the middle grades, and once in high school.

The superintendents also pressed Congress to grant states more flexibility in testing special-education students and those with limited English fluency. Particularly frustrating are federal rules that require students with disabilities to be tested at their chronological age level rather than their academic level.

"You and I know what's going to happen if you put an eighth-grade test in front of a child reading at a fourth-grade level," said Susan Schnebel, superintendent of Islip schools and president of the Suffolk County Association of School Superintendents, who also signed the letter. "That's really a ticket for failure."

The Senate and House, after years of delay, have passed separate bills that would give states greater leeway in setting academic standards for schools. The Senate version, however, would retain the requirement for annual testing.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, at a National Press Club luncheon on Wednesday, acknowledged that some states and school districts are over-testing students.

Duncan reiterated the Obama administration's position that some testing "every single year" remains essential.

"And we need to know, not just in ninth grade and 11th grade, but in third grade and fourth grade and fifth grade, are students truly on track to be ready for college or not?" the nation's top education official added.

Friday, Duncan announced he will step down in December. President Barack Obama named John B. King Jr., New York's former education commissioner and current deputy education secretary, as acting secretary to replace him.

Duncan's planned departure heightens uncertainty over whether the Senate and House will reach final agreement on a revised version of the education law, also known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or ESEA.

Education lobbyists and others in Washington have speculated that passage of a revamped ESEA will be more difficult than expected because of the recent announcement by House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) that he will resign from Congress at the end of this month.

With Tom Brune

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