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State education officials now left to decide on Regents exams

David Gamberg, superintendent of the Greenport and Southold districts on the Island's North Fork, had written the governor's office Monday, asking that tests be canceled. Credit: Randee Daddona

New York State's extended suspension of testing, which will impact more than a million students in grades three through eight, has broader implications, on issues ranging from teacher job ratings to high school graduations, educators said.

State Education Department officials, speaking on background, told Newsday on Friday they were reviewing the issue of high school Regents exams as well, and would make a decision on that at a later date.  

Test cancellations were announced Friday by state education leaders, following shutdowns of schools on Long Island and statewide aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus. As detailed so far, tests affected for the balance of this school year include English, math and science assessments used in elementary and middle grades, as well as assessments for students with disabilities or limited English language.

 Administration of English Language Arts tests in grades three through eight originally was scheduled to start Tuesday. But a shorter suspension of testing until April 1 was announced last week.

Most testing canceled so far is part of a program launched in New York State in 2006, under a federal law formerly known as No Child Left Behind. Results are used to measure students' academic progress, but do not determine their promotion from grade to grade. 

Regents exams date to 1865, and are a key component in deciding whether students receive high school diplomas. Locally, many educators already are speculating that schools will remain closed beyond the April 1 date set by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, and are wondering if high school students will have time to absorb the academic content required to pass Regents exams, which are written at college-prep level. 

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"The content clock is ticking," said Michael Cohen, a mathematics expert and retired superintendent from the Brentwood school district, the Island's largest. "They don't have a lot of time left."

Cohen noted that math, in particular, is difficult to teach without face-to-face instruction, and that school closings now require lessons to be taught online and off-site. The longer schools remain shuttered, the more difficulty they face in prepping students for Regents exams, he said. 

State education officials said Friday the extended suspension of testing would provide relief for local school workers now tasked with providing home instruction to students, along with takeout breakfasts and lunches.

"It is most important that during the time of closure, schools are able to continue to focus their efforts toward local school and community needs, as they have been doing, and not be concerned about state assessment," declared a statement issued by Betty Rosa, chancellor of the state's Board of Regents, and Shannon Tahoe, interim education commissioner. 

Unionized teachers and many of their supervisors, who had pressed for cancellation of grades three through eight testing, praised the state's latest action. Some added, however, that cancellation raised questions regarding teachers' work evaluations, schools' academic ratings and other issues that could be difficult to resolve.  

"I think it's the right thing to do, and I'm glad it didn't linger for a moment longer," said David Gamberg, superintendent of the Greenport and Southold districts on the Island's North Fork. Gamberg had written the governor's office Monday, asking that tests be canceled. 

One issue yet to be resolved is the annual rating of schools based largely on the numbers of students participating in and passing state tests, Gamberg said. Schools falling short on those tests are deemed by the state as needing academic improvement — a designation that can hurt their public image.

Twenty-one districts and 30 individual schools in Nassau and Suffolk counties received such ratings last month. 

Gamberg suggested the state might temporarily suspend such ratings, since schools this year will have no opportunity to boost their performance on elementary and middle school tests. 

"I think we ought to wipe the table clean," he said.

Robert Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, said he sensed widespread support for test cancellation. Lowry added, however, that school closings left less time for principals to observe and rate the classroom performance of teachers, which is another requirement of state law.

Lowry suggested the time had come for the state to rethink this year's teacher ratings.

"Even if a miracle occurs, and we resume classes on April 1, is it reasonable to expect school administrators to cram in all these observations they need to do, on top of everything else?" Lowry asked. 

Rosa and Tahoe, in Friday's statement, said New York State had applied for federal waivers from testing, accountability and reporting requirements. 

Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced that students affected by school closings due to the coronavirus pandemic could bypass standardized testing for the 2019-20 school year. DeVos added that her agency would grant waivers from required testing for any state that was unable to assess students due to the health crisis and filed a proper application for relief. 

"Students need to be focused on staying healthy and continuing to learn," DeVos said.

The head of New York's statewide teacher union, Andy Pallotta, who had pressed for federal action earlier in the week, supported the latest announcement.

"This is not the time to create more stress for kids," said Pallotta, who is president of the 600,000-member New York United Teachers union. 

At least 19 states have either suspended testing for this academic year or filed for federal waivers to cancel testing, according to a list compiled by Education Week.

More than half of all states have closed their schools for two to six weeks, and at least one state, Kansas, announced that schools would close for the rest of the academic year.

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