Capital Region

Elia raises concerns with Assembly-passed teacher evaluation bill

Defends computer-based testing: "We've got to be moving into the 21st century."
State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia speaks in Latham, May 4, 2018.
State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia speaks in Latham, May 4, 2018.

LATHAM — The state’s top education official said on Friday that a fast-moving bill that would prohibit the use of student state test scores in teacher evaluations could create “unintended consequences.”

The bill, which passed the state Assembly this week and has garnered dozens of bipartisan sponsors in the Senate, would unwind a 2015 law that tied students’ scores on annual math and English tests to teacher evaluations. That law raised the ire of teachers across the state and fueled the biggest testing opt-out movement in the country.

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said she understood why teachers resisted the original law, which she said was not backed by research, but she suggested the current legislative process was too fast and may create new issues, including an increase in local testing for students.

“I just want the change to be thoughtful and, ultimately, be so well developed that there are no unintended consequences,” she said during a talk with educators in Latham. “And I’m not sure we have that with this bill.”

Elia was meeting with the New York State Council of Education Associations, an umbrella organization of various teachers, administrators and specialist associations. When asked what unintended consequences she was concerned about, she said the bill’s language allows “alternative assessments … instead of all other state-created or administered tests” to be picked for use in evaluations through local negotiations between teachers and administrators.

“It’s possible that it could increase testing,” she said of the bill. “And we certainly don’t want to do that in the state … doing more tests would be, I think, detrimental to our students.”

State Sen. Jim Tedisco, R-Glenville, a chief sponsor of the Senate bill, said Friday it would be better if local educators and administrators determined what types of tests would be used to judge teacher performance, allowing that state officials could still review local plans. He also highlighted the years of parent angst around state testing and argued now was the time to eliminate the connection in law between student performance on statewide tests and teacher evaluations.  

“Educators will be invovled who are in the classroom everyday,” he said of local districts determing what types of tests they would use. “I suggest we need new local testing processes that involve teachers, administrators, parents and local boards of education.”

Elia also defended the state’s effort to shift the annual tests to computers, despite a flood of complaints about delays and other issues last month during the early days of English Language Arts testing.

She said the connectivity problems traced to testing contractor Questar Assessment were under review, and she promised Questar would be held accountable. But she also said having students take the tests on computers was inevitable.

“We’ve got to be moving into the 21st century,” she said, adding that computer testing will speed up the time it takes to get student results and opens the door to testing more tailored to individual students.

“Here’s the reality: When we can get to computer-based assessment in New York, you can shift and, within a very short period of time, know how your kids did. That is a big deal,” Elia said.

A technical advisory committee of testing experts from around the country would also review the testing results for potential validity problems for those students who faced delays and disruptions while testing, Elia said.

“Am I pleased that this happened? Absolutely not,” she said of the problems. “Are they (Questar) accountable? They are accountable, and we will hold them accountable. But this is testing for a very large state, and very often… there are issues.”

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