In state Senate races, antipathy toward Common Core education standards and annual state tests cuts across party lines: both Democrats and Republicans find reasons to pile on to statewide criticism.
In the area’s two state Senate races – seats currently held by Republicans George Amedore and Hugh Farley – all of the candidates during interviews last week took swipes of some kind at the controversial education standards and state tests that drew an over 20 percent opt-out rate for the second straight year this spring. But specific legislative proposals are few.
In a letter to Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia dated last week, Sara Niccoli, a Democrat challenging Sen. George Amedore, said she found it “unreasonable to force parents to make their children participate” in state tests even though state officials have acknowledged problems with the exams.
Niccoli said she has opted out her 13-year-old daughter in the past two years of tests, arguing an overemphasis on testing had forced her daughter into too many math and English classes and limited her creativity and academic interest.
“I saw the love of learning go out of her,” Niccoli said of her daughter. She placed much of the blame for the contentious testing environment at the feet of a series of 2015 budget reforms that included tying teacher evaluations to student test scores – which drew scorn from teachers, parents and students.
Amedore defended his vote on that budget bill, citing record levels of education spending and arguing all laws are open for revision and change if they are found wanting. He said he has been troubled by the rollout of the state’s Common Core standards for years and has supported legislative oversight.
Assemblyman Jim Tedisco, who is running for the Republican nomination to fill the Senate seat Farley vacates at the end of this term, has been far from shy about voicing his opposition to the standards and tests, challenging Democrats on the Assembly floor and appearing repeatedly in press conferences with parents strongly opposed to the tests.
“The tests cannot be used as a holy grail for evaluating students and teachers,” said Tedisco, who used to work as a special education teacher.
His primary opponent, businessman Christian Klueg, he and his wife have been troubled by and frustrated with Common Core. He said as the standards were changed “the devil was in the details” and professional educators needed a say in the process.
“When I’m not a professional in a certain area, I don’t want to pretend I have all of the answers,” Klueg said.
Chad Putman, running as a Democrat for Farley’s seat, called Tedisco’s vocal opposition to the state testing regime “a lot of smoke and mirrors” that didn’t get at the true problems of student performance. He highlighted the challenges that poor districts face in performing on state tests when they remain underfunded and that tests are too much of a “one-size-fits-all” measure.
“It’s a single Lego in the building block but it doesn’t address the underlying issues these young people are facing: [the] issue of poverty,” Putman said. “We can’t lost sight of the value of funding the school districts appropriately, of equitable funding."
But the lawmakers – and prospective lawmakers – stopped short of any major legislative proposals.
Tedisco cited legislation he filed last session that would have required school districts to notify parents of their right to refuse the tests and a separate bill that tightly limited the amount of weight test scores could be given for teacher evaluations.
Putman said he would convene stakeholders – parents, students, educators – to build consensus on a path forward. Niccoli said she supported a series of recommendations from a Common Core task force, which included developing new standards, and reduce overall testing and preparation; she said she would favor legislation forcing the implementation of the recommendations.
State Education Department officials, at the direction of the Board of Regents, have spent much of the past year responding to the criticisms around the standards and tests. The tests in the spring included fewer questions and were untimed; the state has moved to a new testing vendor; and state officials are working on revising the education standards.
The candidates mostly hedged over their expectations of what the result of the standards review would be. Amedore and Tedisco didn’t say whether or not they trusted the process underway at the Education Department, but they didn’t fail to knock the idea that any solution would come from a state office.
“I’m never confident with the big bureaucracy going about making policies,” Amedore said. “The whole state Ed (Department) needs a complete overhaul.”