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One-year suspension of teacher evaluations supported at Medford news conference

This is a first-grade classroom at Branch Brook

This is a first-grade classroom at Branch Brook Elementary School in Smithtown at the end of the day Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2011. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

Dozens of school superintendents on Long Island and in Westchester County -- two suburban areas with high rates of standardized test boycotts -- are calling on the state to suspend for one year its controversial teacher evaluations linked to students' scores.

School chiefs from a dozen districts on the Island held a news conference Thursday in Medford to outline their plan, and superintendents representing another 40 districts in Westchester held a simultaneous meeting in Harrison.

"It's not too late to get it right," said Michael Hynes, superintendent of Patchogue-Medford schools and host of the Long Island meeting.

The superintendents holding the unusual dual news conferences want the state's evaluation law amended before the legislature adjourns, which is scheduled June 17.

Statewide, more than 200,000 students in grades three through eight opted out of state standardized tests during this spring's assessments in English and math, according to estimates by parent groups. The numbers included more than 60,000 students in Nassau and Suffolk counties, as detailed in counts by Newsday.

The superintendents, who represent some of the most outspoken opponents of the state's job-rating system, predict the boycott movement will grow as long as Albany continues to press forward with the current evaluations.

A parent advocate, Jeanette Deutermann of Bellmore in Nassau County, agreed at Thursday's meeting that families would continue to keep children out of tests "in great and growing numbers" unless Albany reverses course.

The school chiefs said they were speaking independently, and not as representatives of official countywide organizations of superintendents.

However, Roberta Gerold, superintendent of Middle Country schools and president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association, spoke at the news conference and noted that her organization shares many goals with the independent groups.

Other districts represented -- all in Suffolk -- were Amityville, Comsewogue, Copiague, Greenport, Longwood, Mattituck-Cutchogue, Montauk, Shelter Island, Shoreham-Wading River and Southold.

A change in the law, pushed through the legislature on April 1 by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, raises to at least 40 percent the portion of evaluations of individual teachers that is based on student scores from state tests in grades three through eight. That portion is up from a pre-vious minimum of 20 percent.

The governor has said the change is intended to put teeth in a ratings system that he has described as ineffective. Opponents say the increased emphasis on test scores is subject to statistical error and is bound to raise anxieties among students, teachers and parents.

To temper the situation, the superintendents are calling for another amendment of state law.

Their proposal would empower the state's new education commissioner, MaryEllen Elia, to name a panel of academic experts to examine the evaluation system and recommend changes. The panel's review would take a year, and state-mandated teacher ratings would be suspended in the meantime.

Earlier in the spring, legislators considered establishing such an advisory group but discarded the idea during negotiations with the governor's office.

Closed-door talks are underway in Albany on teacher evaluations and other issues. No agreements have been announced between the governor and leaders of the State Senate and Assembly.

Several lawmakers in the political minority, who have greater latitude to speak out on such issues, backed the superintendents' position.

Assemb. Ed Ra (R-Franklin Square), ranking minority member of the Assembly Education Committee, issued a statement read at the news conference that urged the state to "hit the pause button" on teacher ratings.

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