ALBANY -- State officials could begin developing a new teacher evaluation system as early as next fall, Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said Tuesday, during an address to superintendents at the Albany Hilton.
Elia also unequivocally sidelined a plan to raise passing scores on the math and English Regents exams for students who reach testing age next year, a plan that previously had district superintendents and school board members voicing concerns about plummeting passage rates.
Looking back on the work the state Education Department has done over the past 18 months, Elia told the New York State Council of Superintendents they have made progress on cooling the temperature around education issues, including revised learning standards and changes to the annual state test.
State testing, opt outs
But there is more work to be done, Elia said, conceding that some people are still looking for changes to the state tests and that the state’s high level of parents opting out of the tests could continue.
“For those of you who have impatience in your mind, I understand it,” she said to the ballroom of district leaders from across the state. “I also would like everything to be fixed and perfect … but that isn’t how life is, and we’ve got some really strong work to do together to get away from some of the practices and some of the perceptions that are strong still, but hopefully being rethought.”
Elia said last year’s “relatively flat” opt-out rates were “probably a win for us.” About one-in-five students opted out of the spring state tests, roughly the same portion who didn’t participate the year before. She signaled that she didn’t expect the opt-out rates to drop dramatically, suggesting it would take time for changes to the test to alter behavior.
“People are emotionally involved in a position, and it takes time for people to think about it and rethink it,” she said. “As we move forward, there’s no question that there’s still going to be people that want to question whether or not they want their children to take the test.” That decision is a right she believes parents have.
But she urged district leaders to continue communicating how the test has changed – the state eliminated a few questions and lifted time constraints – and to explain the ways test results are used to improve student instruction.
Developing a new teacher evaluation system is tricky business, Elia said. So tricky, she compared it to diffusing a bomb. She said the state Education Department would put together teams of teachers and administrators to begin working on teacher evaluations in the fall.
“This is going to be very careful work. Like when in the movies you see a bomb is there and somebody has got a clipper and they’re trying to decide whether to go red or green,” she said, drawing laughs from her audience. “I always choose the wrong one.”
Teacher evaluations flared into a fight two years ago, after education reforms were adopted as part of the state budget, including an evaluation plan that tied teacher evaluations to student scores on state tests. Elia said the issue needed to “cool some before any of us can go near it,” and that it logically followed that the work on evaluations would come after new standards and assessments were developed.
The Board of Regents in 2015 put in place a moratorium on using test scores in evaluations, but lawmakers have still not undone the law that proscribes what form the evaluations should take. Elia told the superintendent council the evaluations had been “unplugged” from consequences, and that “we are not ready to plug it back in.”
Ultimately, she said, teachers, administrators and state policymakers will have to work together to develop an evaluation system that helps teachers identify areas in which they can improve.
“We have to walk that thin line to get to an end, but we will get there,” she said. “And it will be a collaborative effort with our teachers, and it will be an evaluation that is productive: not a gotcha, productive in helping teachers know what they can do to get better.”
Elia also eased some concerns by definitively promising state officials would not move forward with an earlier plan to raise passing scores on the Algebra and English Language Arts tests for students set to graduate in 2022. Some of those students would have begun taking the tests under the new scoring system as early as next year.
She told superintendents that decision would be clearly communicated in a forthcoming memo.
But the Regents exam regime, which has been transitioning to Common Core-aligned tests over the past few years, remains unsatisfactorily complicated to superintendents and Elia. On one hand, the science and social studies exams are moving to a 1-to-4 scoring scale, while the math and English are moving to a 1-to-5 scoring scale – from the long-understood 1-to-100 scale for all Regents exams.
“How do we wind up explaining to our communities a change from a system they are very comfortable with to basically a dual system.”
“I can’t explain it,” Elia responded bluntly. “It doesn’t make sense, guys.”
She said the plan is to move toward exams with consistent scoring scales, but that it would take time to get there.