I cannot imagine that it is easy being New York Stated Education Department Commissioner MaryEllen Elia. Brought to Albany in May of last year, she came to a post where her predecessor, Dr. John King Jr., had strained relationships with many parents and communities to the breaking point. Commissioner Elia arrived in the wake of record breaking test refusal in her new state, and her obvious job was to mend fences between NYSED and school districts and parents while not backing off of the Common Core Standards, the accompanying testing, and plans to use test data in the evaluation of districts, schools, and teachers. In most respects, she was an ideal pick for the job. She is clearly a believer in today’s reform environment, having taken on a $100 million grant for Florida’s sprawling Hillsborough district from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to implement the foundation’s vision of teacher effectiveness (a vision that turned out to be an expensive bust that lost funding and was ultimately abandoned by the district). More importantly, Commissioner Elia is a lifelong educator with thorough knowledge of how complicated the stakeholders in education can be, knowledge that seemed to elude her predecessor whose actual school experience was mostly limited to no excuses charter schools. Regardless of one’s opinions about Common Core or state testing, Commissioner Elia seemed well positioned to ease tensions in the Empire State.
That was the theory, anyway.
Commissioner Elia began her tenure with a “listening tour” where she visited districts across the state to hear concerns and make the case that the state was heading in the correct direction – even if that direction was causing widespread concerns. This was meant to distinguish herself from Commissioner John King who was widely regarded as unwilling or unable to listen, and to present herself as an NYSED Commissioner eager to discuss with the public. One can probably give Commissioner Elia credit for both speaking to the public and for sticking with her belief in the importance of annual testing. In a talk at Sweet Home Middle School in the Erie County school district where Commissioner Elia began her teaching career, she told attendees that “Life is one big test. We have go to get to the point where people are at peace with that.”
Commissioner Elia’s tone took a turn by the end of the summer, however, when both she and representatives from the federal DOE discussed the need for plans to reduce opt outs in New York. The Commissioner probably felt that she would have some support from both Governor Andrew Cuomo and Chancellor of the Board of Regents Merryl Tisch. After all, Governor Cuomo unleashed a torrent of harsh measures using annual testing in his 2015 budget address, and Chancellor Tisch, speaking to the New York State Council of School Superintendents, compared opting out of state tests with refusing to vaccinate your child. Commissioner Elia probably felt she had plenty of back up when she followed her conversations with Washington on possible consequences for districts with high opt out numbers with her own opinion that the movement was “not reasonable” and that any educators who supported it were “unethical”.
In short order, however, the Commissioner found herself standing alone with both Chancellor Tisch and Governor Cuomo emphatically denying any plans to threaten school districts with loss of funding if they had high opt out rates. Commissioner Elia quickly admitted that parents have the right to opt their children out of the state exams, although she also emphasized that she hoped to convince them otherwise. Governor Cuomo followed this in September by announcing a commission to review the Common Core standards and their implementation in New York. The Regents, meanwhile, after giving districts more time to work out how to use state tests in teacher evaluation, announced a two year moratorium on the use of the state tests for those evaluations – although local tests will still need to be used.
Then last week, Commissioner Elia announced the latest changes to testing in the Empire State – removal of time limits on the state examinations:
“I heard from parents across this state and from teachers that part of the stresses that we had on our kids was that they were timed, and particularly younger children,” the commissioner said in a question-and-answer period following her testimony on Gov. Cuomo’s $145 billion budget proposal.
“So if they are working productively, then they will be able to continue the assessment in a setting where they can read, comprehend and respond to the questions that correspond,” Elia said of students who will be taking the tests this year.
Interestingly enough, it is possible for standardized tests, especially criterion referenced tests, to be administered without time limits. After all, if the purpose of a test is to see if a child knows a specific bit of content or skill, the ability to do it in 5 minutes versus 10 minutes is not as significant as actually knowing it. And I will go out on the limb and simply acknowledge that anything which reduces the likelihood that 8 year olds will vomit and wet themselves during testing is a move in the right direction. That’s the good news.
On the other hand, one does have to wonder how this move reduces the amount of time consumed by state testing, and the logistic challenges with schools potentially having to proctor students for very various lengths of time will be interesting. Moreover, will all of these moves by high authorities in Albany – increasing the length of time to modify and implement Common Core Standards, a temporary moratorium on high stakes purposes for the state standardized exams, removing time limits from the exams themselves – do anything to make a dent in the state’s nation leading opt out numbers? All of these options were available a year ago, but Governor Cuomo and Chancellor Tisch chose to pursue a punishing agenda on teacher and school evaluation, only backing off when the governor’s approval ratings plunged and the scale of test refusal became clear over the summer. With the federal government strongly urging state education authorities to get a handle on their test refusal situations (or risk sanctions from the USDOE), it seems most likely that all of these moves are designed to keep opt outs from increasing this year and to convince parents who refused the tests last year to come back. After all, visibly beating up on schools and teachers got them where they are now. Maybe a velvet glove will help.
Opt Out leaders are not buying it. Former New York school principal and current director of the Network for Public Education Carol Burris sees Opt Out as permanent fixture in education unless more dramatic changes are made. According to Ms. Burris, leaders in the movement remain unconvinced and are energized by USDOE moves to convinced states to lower the boom on test refusal:
Jeanette Deutermann, lead of the Long Island, New York Opt Out, agrees. And she is furious with what she sees as the scare tactics being spread by the media based on the threatening letter issued by Acting Secretary of Education John King.
“As opt outs take root in NY and spread across the country, the federal and state governments continue to play a bizarre game of “yes we will, no we won’t” concerning funding threats. This year the threat took a different spin. The Feds gave the states a great little ‘bullying toolkit’ which basically says, ‘these parents aren’t afraid of us. Make sure they’re afraid of YOU.’ They came up short on one key fact: the USDOE and the SED have no authority to strip our schools of funding for a parent-led action. Our schools are in compliance. Our children are administered the test. We, the parents, direct our children not to take it. There is no law or regulation in NY that affords the SED the right to arbitrarily decide to withhold funds from our local districts.”
Other leaders in test refusal agree, citing the efforts from Albany as entirely missing the point of their concerns over the tests and accompanying policies. President of Community Education Council 31, Michael Reilly, told Chalkbeat: “I think she’s trying to put a bandaid on the issues that parents and educators have raised…This is one attempt to appease parents. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s well thought out.” Lisa Rudley of New York Allies for Public Education was dismissive and said that Commissioner Elia was still treating the tests as more misunderstood than in need of major changes. Time, of course, will tell, but New York’s strongest opponents of the current testing environment are thoroughly unconvinced and confident that test refusals will continue.
Maybe next year, Governor Cuomo can propose a new iPhone for every family that opts in.