Regents plan more testing changes

by Cathy Woodruff

On Board Online • July 3, 2017

By Cathy Woodruff
Senior Writer

At their June meeting, the state Board of Regents cut the number of state testing days for students in grades 3-8. State education officials said they hope the change will ease concerns of those who say the length of the exams stresses out students and robs them of valuable lesson time.

The change from a three-day schedule for each of the math and English language arts exams - a total of six days for both subjects - to a two-day test format (for a total of four days for both subjects) may serve to encourage participation and reduce test refusals, officials said. But Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said influencing current "opt out" advocates wasn't the only goal driving the decision.

"I've gone across the state and talked to people, and many of them who do take the test have said, 'We think it's a little long,'" Elia said.

Statewide, 21 percent of eligible students in grades 3-8 refused the state tests last year. The State Education Department plans to announce the results of this year's tests, including refusal rates, later in July.

Preliminary regional reports indicated that refusal rates dipped significantly in some areas of the state this year while remaining high in regions including Long Island.

Other benefits expected from the shortened format include reducing scoring time for teachers, enabling more schools to make an earlier transition to computer-based testing, and speeding the implementation of a Governor's Common Core Task Force recommendation to reduce the number of student testing days.

Going to two-day testing schedules will involve tradeoffs, however. Among the most significant: 2018 results won't be comparable to this year's. That will limit SED's ability to discern multi-year trends and could make identifying schools in need of improvement less straightforward.

The abrupt change to two days will mean sacrificing teacher input on the design of the next exams. Also, slightly longer exam sessions will be necessary on the days when testing does occur, Elia said during a presentation to the Regents' Standards and Assessments Workgroup. With the elimination of some types of questions, students will have fewer opportunities to demonstrate problem-solving skills, she added.

Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa described the reduction in testing days as "a bold step forward," but other Regents expressed reservations.

"I'm just not sure we are there yet," said Regents Vice Chancellor T. Andrew Brown. "Is what we're giving up fair for what we're getting?"

"Having a shorter test doesn't mean it's necessarily a better test," said Regent Lester Young. He said "scores of families" rely heavily on the results of state tests for their only indication of how well their children are learning in relation to learning standards and in comparison with other students and whether they are making good progress.

Brown and Young both abstained from voting on the shift to two-day tests. Otherwise, the approval was unanimous.

Under a plan laid out by Elia for a transition to the state's Next Generation Standards for math and English language arts, the spring 2018 exams will be the first with the two-day format and they will be based on the current Common Core standards. That will lay the groundwork for a three-year trend line of test results for 2018, 2019 and 2020.

Full implementation of the Next Generation Standards is scheduled for the 2020-21 school year, and new tests based on those standards would be rolled out in the spring of 2021.

"We're in the process of being transitional with both our standards and our assessments," Elia told reporters after the vote. "Certainly, we need to do it now if we're going to make any (testing) change, so we do have a longer trend line before we make the next change. . Next year, you'll have an upset in the trend line. But, from then on, you'll have a three-year period."

The reduction in testing days follows other changes for the grades 3-8 tests last year, which included reducing the number of test questions and lifting time limits for students.

Praise for the Regents' latest decision demonstrated an unusually broad consensus among organizations with widely varying positions on state testing, the Common Core standards and test refusals.

The leaders of New York State United Teachers, frequent critics of the state tests, described the move to a two-day format as "a positive step."

Charles Dedrick, executive director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, called the shortening of testing time an "essential step towards reassuring families and educators that state assessments can produce value for teaching and learning."

In a written statement, Dedrick also praised the Regents for opening a renewed discussion about the purposes of state assessments during their workgroup meeting.

"This is a crucial conversation," Dedrick said. "We believe the current tests have been asked to fulfill too many purposes and cannot serve all of them well."

Leaders of High Achievement New York, who have argued for the importance of state tests in maintaining high standards, said the latest effort to "streamline" the annual exam process is a "natural next step, as long as the assessments continue to cover the material needed to truly measure every student's strengths and challenges and the challenges are implemented carefully and with the input of educators and communities."

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