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Regents tweak opt-out rules, point to bigger changes on tests

Regents tweak opt-out rules, point to bigger changes on tests

Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia cites misunderstanding
Regents tweak opt-out rules, point to bigger changes on tests
Photographer: Shutterstock

As the state Board of Regents approved a set of tweaks to rules governing opt-out rates Monday, a handful of regents made a case for downplaying the federally-required state tests.

The Regents signed off on a final round of changes to regulations to implement the state’s new accountability plan, which was developed under the national Every Student Succeeds Act. Those changes attempted to address concerns from parents and teachers that districts would be forced to spend federal dollars to boost test participation.

Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia suggested concerns over the provision were partly fueled by a misunderstanding, but she said it was important to nullify any confusion and clarify that districts would not be forced to spend money to boost participation rates.

“It caused too much stress and tension and was better to listen to all the people who gave us that feedback,” Elia said.

Districts that do not reach 95 percent participation on annual state math and English Language Arts exams, however, will be required to develop and file plans with state officials to improve participation in the future. Nearly all Capital Region school districts failed to reach the 95 percent participation threshold last year.

But the conversation about opt-outs, as it has in the past, opened the door for members of the board to take shots at the overall testing system, raising concerns about whether the tests were a useful way to measure student achievement.

As long as the state tests remain a critical measure of student and school performance, some of the regents said, educators will have an incentive to focus too much on preparing students for the tests.

“I think the focus has to shift from not worrying about how many parents are keeping their kids out to what is it we are trying” to measure with the tests, Regent Judith Johnson said. “Until we stop ranking and shaming these teachers in schools … they are going to be focusing on test prep.”

Regent Roger Tilles, who represents parts of Long Island, where the opt-out rates have dwarfed other parts of the state, pointed to a state law that ties student test scores to teacher performance reviews. While the Regents have adopted a moratorium on using student test scores in teacher evaluations, lawmakers have yet to make changes to the underlying law.

“The law is still on the books,” Tilles said. “As long as that’s still on the books, we can do an awful lot of things, but I don’t think we are going to get a whole lot more people to end the opting out until we get the law changed.”

The Regents have pressed for developing new ways of assessing students, such as portfolio assessments by which students demonstrate mastery of a topic by showcasing their work over a period of time,  and moving toward reliance on multiple ways of measuring student performance, instead of focusing so much on a pair of annual tests.

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