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NY education commissioner says test opt-outs 'not reasonable'

New York State's new education commissioner, MaryEllen Elia,

New York State's new education commissioner, MaryEllen Elia, gives her first speech in Albany on July 22, 2015. Elia discussed how to turn failing schools around during the state Education Department conference. Credit: Shannon DeCelle

The state's new education commissioner, MaryEllen Elia, sharply criticized the growing test-boycott movement Thursday at an educators conference in Manhattan, saying its supporters do not understand the need for Common Core test data in measuring students' progress and shining a light on areas in need of improvement.

"I think opt-out is something that is not reasonable," said Elia, who took over the state's top educational administrative post six weeks ago. She spoke in response to a question from a program organizer.

"I am absolutely shocked if, and I don't know that this happened, but if any educators supported and encouraged opt-outs, I think it's unethical," the commissioner added.

Elia was at New York University before a meeting of about 150 teachers and other educators sponsored by Educators 4 Excellence. The group advocates policies intended to heighten teaching performance and student achievement.

Last week, the State Education Department released the latest results of state testing, indicating that more than 200,000 students in grades three through eight statewide, or about 20 percent of those eligible, had refused to take the standardized tests. More than 60,000 of those students were in Long Island's 124 public school districts.

The assessments, administered in April, covered English language arts and mathematics.

Many parents, teachers, principals and others have contended that the boycotts represent legitimate resistance to a system of testing and teacher evaluation that was rushed into place and poorly designed and puts undue pressure on students and teachers alike.

As many as 50 percent of teachers' annual job evaluations are to be based on student test performance under a revised rating system pushed through the State Legislature this year by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

William Johnson, Rockville Centre superintendent and a frequent critic of the state's testing policies, said Thursday that the boycott movement, at its heart, is a parent-led operation.

"You know, opt-out is not an educators' movement," said Johnson, a former president of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. "It is parents frustrated with the inability of the state Education Department to put together a test that makes sense to them."

Fifty-eight percent of Rockville Centre students who were expected to take April tests opted out, according to state data. The district is considered one of the highest-achieving in the region and offers the rigorous college-level International Baccalaureate program.

Elia, who grew up in the Buffalo area, served 10 years as superintendent of a countywide school system in the Tampa, Florida, region before taking the New York post on July 1.

"Here's a newcomer, coming into New York late in the game, and she thinks she can step in and threaten parents who are approaching a majority," said Jeanette Deutermann, a North Bellmore mother of two who founded Long Island Opt-Out, a regional grassroots organization. "So I think she's got an awful lot to learn." She and other leaders of the opt-out movement met privately with Elia for about an hour several weeks ago.

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