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Plan for annual state tests remains unclear, but they won’t be remote, officials say

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ALBANY — It’s not clear what will happen with annual state tests this year – math and English tests given to primary grade students and the state’s graduation exams – but students will not be taking the tests remotely.

While some education advocacy groups have called on the Board of Regents to scrap the annual tests, state officials are limited in their ability to cancel the federally-required tests of students in grades 3 through 8 without a waiver, which the current administration has indicated will not be forthcoming.

State officials during Monday’s virtual Board of Regents meeting said it was still too early to make a decision about the plan for state testing – noting the position of federal Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos that state’s will not be allowed to cancel tests — but said health and safety would be prioritized and that officials would request a waiver to cancel the tests if they were deemed unsafe to administer.

But at least one thing is clear: Students will not be taking the tests remotely.

“It’s not feasible for tests to be administered to students outside of the school building,” said Steven Katz, an assistant state education commissioner.

School districts in recent years have started to administer the annual tests on computers as part of a planned statewide transition to computer-based testing, but state officials determined the state tests could not be administered effectively with students taking tests from outside a school building. Statewide about half of students are learning remotely, according to data reported on a daily basis by districts.

In a Sept. 29 letter to state education officials, a coalition of 32 advocacy groups around the state called for the state Education Department to suspend testing for the current school year, arguing educators and students should focus on healing, not testing, and that students from marginalized communities would be most harmed by maintaining the testing regime.

“The focus for the 2020-21 school year should be on healing and learning, not on high-stakes testing, given everything our communities have gone and continue to go through with the heightened uncertainty that COVID-19 brought in our lives,” the groups wrote in the letter.

Even if the state administers the spring 3-8 grade math and English tests, parents and student may refuse to take them, giving rise to another wave of testing opt-outs, which have gradually subsided in recent years. Some members of the Board of Regents called for state officials to come up with alternative ways for districts to measure the academic progress of students.

“We do expect there will be quite a number of opt-outs for this coming year,” Regent Judith Chin said. “I would like to begin exploring what are the alternatives we should be considering for monitoring the progress of students during this unprecedented type of year.”

State officials also promised to update a survey of student access to computers and internet connection, asking school districts over the coming weeks to update their counts of student connectivity.

During the summer, the Education Department reported that 300,000 students said they did not have access to a computer and 200,000 reported limited or no internet connectivity. Thousands of teachers also reported not having access to a computer and internet connection. That data report was based on just half of the state’s districts.

Kimberly Wilkins, a deputy education commissioner, said school districts would have until Dec. 1 to report the technology access data, which is also being collected as part of annual enrollment counts. She said she planned to update the Board of Regents at its December meeting.

“The top barrier to our teachers and students accessing online learning was cost,” Wilkins said.

As the pandemic continues to disrupt and alter every aspect of education, a favorite pastime of students could be on the chopping block: the snow day.

In a pilot program this year, state officials granted school districts the flexibility to teach students remotely in lieu of canceling school for a snow day. Districts seeking to swap snow days for a day of remote school will have to ensure the remote school days match the amount of instructional time students would have received in school. The special allowance only applies to the current school year.

Greater Amsterdam School District Superintendent Rich Ruberti said he hopes to have students learn remotely on days that might otherwise have been canceled due to snow, highlighting the enormous disruptions to student learning since the spring and the importance of using every chance to support their education.

“I think those are precious hours we want … to provide the best educational experience possible,” Ruberti said in a phone interview Monday.

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