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Wednesday, February 5, 2014

A Call to Ignore Exam Results When Evaluating Educators

Sheldon Silver

A year after a switch to new standardized tests for public school students caused passing rates to plummet, leaders of both political parties in the New York Legislature on Tuesday called on the state to back away from plans to use those exams to grade teachers.

In synchronized statements, Democratic leaders of the State Assembly joined Republicans in the State Senate to propose that the tests, which are aligned with the new curriculum standards known as the Common Core, be excluded, for now, from the state’s new teacher evaluation system, which Gov.
Andrew M. Cuomo signed into law in 2012.

The proposal will involve altering the law, which requires that the state test results be used for at least 20 percent of a teacher’s evaluation. Other factors, like principals’ observations and locally designed tests, make up the bulk of the grade. Teachers who earn the lowest mark — “ineffective” — two years in a row are at risk of losing their jobs.

The change would require backtracking on one of the governor’s earliest legislative victories. But it also could give him an antidote to mounting complaints over the Common Core in a re-election year. Mr. Cuomo has already said he would name a panel to recommend changes to what he called a “flawed” rollout of the Common Core.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Cuomo said “it would be premature” to consider a change in the law before the panel finished its work.

“The governor believes there are two issues — Common Core and teacher evaluations — and they must be analyzed separately,” the spokeswoman, Melissa DeRosa, said.

The standards, adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia, are intended to promote more critical thinking and have required whole new curriculums in many places. New York’s tests were rewritten to match the new standards in 2013, despite teachers’ complaints that they had not been fully trained and had not been provided with the curriculum. Only 31 percent of students statewide passed the exams in reading and math last year, down from 55 percent in reading and 65 percent in math in 2012.

The 2014 tests, also aligned with the Common Core, will be given in April and May. A working group of the State Board of Regents is set to report next week on possible adjustments to the rollout of the Common Core.

The board, which is appointed by the Legislature, and the State Education Department, which the board oversees, “will continue to work to improve implementation of the Common Core in our schools and all the laws and regulations we administer in furtherance of educational excellence,” the board’s chancellor, Merryl H. Tisch, and the state education commissioner, John B. King Jr., said in a joint statement on Tuesday.

But the Assembly speaker,
Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, told reporters in Albany that the action taken on Tuesday was meant as a message that “now is the time” for the board to address the educational issues.

The lawmakers said no tests linked to the Common Core should be used in decisions regarding teachers for at least two years. The change, if made, would affect about 18 percent of teachers — those responsible for teaching math and English in the fourth through eighth grades.

The legislators also said no decisions regarding students, including promotions and admissions, should be linked to the tests for two years, which could present a challenge to middle and high schools that use test scores in deciding whom to accept.

Michael Mulgrew, president of the city’s teachers’ union, said grade point averages, portfolios and the sum of a student’s work could be used in such decisions instead.

Speaker Silver said: “Common Core may be beneficial, probably is beneficial. But you can’t thrust it upon students, on faculty and on administrators. I would hope that the Board of Regents would take the message and deal with it.”

Some advocates of the new teacher evaluation system and the Common Core expressed concern over the lawmakers’ proposal.

“We need to give teachers the tools they need, not introduce new uncertainty by changing the rules midyear and letting politics drive pedagogy,” said Jonathan Schleifer, executive director of Educators 4 Excellence, a nonprofit group. “Kicking the can down the road is either a death knell for Common Core or ensures that we’re having this same conversation a year from now.”

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