eyes on opt-out

Elia says supporting opt-outs ‘unethical,’ vows to keep pushing feds for waiver

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
New York State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia.

The head of New York’s education department came down hard Thursday on teachers who encouraged the growing boycott of state tests this year.

“I think opt-out is something that is not reasonable,” State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said at an event hosted by the teacher advocacy group Educators 4 Excellence. “I am absolutely shocked if, and I don’t know that this happened, but if any educators supported and encouraged opt-outs. I think it’s unethical.”

Elia’s comments came after an unprecedented number of students declined to take the New York’s English and math exams this spring. Tallies released last week put the total at about one in five students statewide, though the opt-out movement had a smaller presence in New York City.

The commissioner’s remarks are in line with her previous comments about the tests, which Elia has defended as tools that help educators guide their work, track achievement gaps between student groups, and indicate when individual schools aren’t measuring up. But parents and advocates who have encouraged the opt-out movement say the tests don’t provide useful information, encourage schools to narrow their curriculum, and feed into unhelpful teacher evaluations.

Elia is under pressure to keep the movement from growing, which could jeopardize teacher evaluations and assessments of struggling schools in some districts. Since starting in July, she’s announced that the state is replacing the controversial test-maker Pearson and called attention to a planned review of the Common Core standards.

At another point in the event Thursday, the commissioner defended teachers against critics of the education system, saying that pundits shouldn’t direct blame toward those doing the work of helping students learn.

“I’m a commissioner that will never bash teachers,” she said. “We can’t look at making the teacher the scapegoat for problems that may have existed in bureaucracies we have to fix.”

Elia also criticized the federal education department for not allowing the state to make changes that could have reduced or eased testing for students with severe disabilities and some English learners.

“I believe we have not done as a profession, and the education leaders of this country through [the Department of Education], have not done what’s necessary to put in place appropriate assessments for kids who are severely disabled,” she said.

This spring, federal officials rejected New York’s appeal to exempt English learners who have attended U.S. schools for less than two years from taking the tests. That waiver would have also provided more flexibility to adjust the difficulty level of tests taken by students with severe disabilities.

“I’ve had conversations with U.S. DOE about it, and we need to get there,” Elia said. “It is on my agenda.”

Test tweaks

Tennessee will halve science and social studies tests for its youngest students

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen announced Wednesday plans to slim down science and social studies assessments for third- and fourth-graders as she seeks to respond to complaints of over-testing in Tennessee.

McQueen has been mulling over that option since meeting last summer with her testing task force. The State Department of Education received more public feedback on testing during the last eight months while developing the state’s new plan for its schools in response to a new federal education law.

Tennessee already has eliminated a state test for eighth- and tenth-graders, as well as shortened TNReady, the state’s end-of-year tests for math and reading.

It’s uncertain just how significant the latest reductions are, since McQueen also said that some “components” would be added to English tests in those grades.  

And the trimming, while significant, falls short of a suggestion to eliminate the tests altogether. Federal law does not require tests in science and social studies for those grades, like it does for math and English.

Parents and educators have become increasingly vocal about the amount of testing students are undergoing. The average Tennessee third-grader, for instance, currently spends more than 11 hours taking end-of-course tests in math, English, social studies and science. That doesn’t include practice tests and screeners through the state’s 3-year-old intervention program.

McQueen noted that more changes could be on the horizon. Her testing task force has also considered eliminating or reducing TNReady for 11th-graders because they already are required to take the ACT college-entrance exam. “We will continue to evaluate all of our options for streamlining assessments in the coming years, including in the 11th grade,” she wrote in a blog post.

McQueen also announced that the state is tweaking its schools plan to reduce the role that chronic absenteeism will play in school evaluation scores.

The federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires states to evaluate schools based off of a measure that’s not directly tied to test scores. Tennessee officials have selected chronic absenteeism, which is defined as missing 10 percent of school days for any reason, including absences or suspension. McQueen said the measure will be changed to count for 10 percent of a school’s final grade, down from 20 percent for K-8 schools and 15 percent for high schools.

Some local district officials had raised concerns that absenteeism was out of the control of schools.

early adopters

Here are the 25 districts committing to taking TNReady online this spring

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

One year after Tennessee’s first attempt at online testing fizzled, 25 out of 140 Tennessee school districts have signed up to try again.

About 130 districts were eligible to test online this year.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said Thursday the number is what she expected as districts prepare to administer the state’s TNReady assessment in April.

Although all districts will make the switch to online testing by 2019 for middle and high school students, they had the option to forge ahead this year with their oldest students.

The Department of Education is staggering its transition to online testing — a lesson learned last year when most of the state tried to do it all at once and the online platform buckled on the first day. As a result, the department fired its testing company, derailing the state’s assessment program, and later hired  Questar as its new test maker.

Districts piloted Questar’s online platform last fall, and had until Wednesday to decide whether to forge ahead with online testing for their high school students this spring or opt for paper-and-pencil tests.

McQueen announced the state’s new game plan for TNReady testing in January and said she is confident that the new platform will work.

While this year was optional for high schools, all high schools will participate in 2018. Middle and elementary schools will make the switch in 2019, though districts will have the option of administering the test on paper to its youngest students.

Districts opting in this spring are:

  • Alvin C. York Institute
  • Bedford County
  • Bledsoe County
  • Blount County
  • Bristol City
  • Campbell County
  • Cannon County
  • Cheatham County
  • Clay County
  • Cocke County
  • Coffee County
  • Cumberland County
  • Grundy County
  • Hamilton County
  • Hancock County
  • Knox County
  • Jackson-Madison County
  • Moore County
  • Morgan County
  • Putnam County
  • Scott County
  • Sullivan County
  • Trousdale County
  • Washington County
  • Williamson County