EDITORIAL: Testing struggle isn’t over

FOR ALL THE CONCERN THAT NOTHING but money commands the attention of government leaders, you have to marvel at how an unorganized movement of angry, frustrated and worried parents led to one of the quickest, most significant turnarounds of state government behavior in modern memory. Did you miss it?

Last week the state Education Department pulled the plug on a company called Pearson Education, a British multi-national publisher and testing firm. Pearson created the flawed tests for grades 3 through 8 that helped spark the statewide parent revolt against new state testing aligned with the Common Core learning standards.

The state chose a Minneapolis company called Questar Assessment (not affiliated with our local Questar III BOCES) for a five-year contract for tests that will cost taxpayers $44 million once the state attorney general and comptroller approve the agreement. Will this be better than Pearson? Who knows? But the Education Department issued a press release last week assuring that “New York state teachers will be involved in every step of the test development process.”
Giving teachers a say in the tests their students take? Clever idea. How come no one thought of that before public education here was nearly torn apart?

That quote about teacher involvement was attributed to the new state education commissioner, MaryEllen Elia, who was in office three days when the change in testing services was announced, so she probably had little to do with the new contract. But Ms. Elia was the one who reminded the public that “teacher input is critical to building a successful state test, and that’s why the new contract emulates the collaborative process used to develop the Regents Exams.”

In other words New York has a tradition of relying on the knowledge and experience of teachers to create meaningful tests. But the Pearson test flaws and the inept way Common Core standards were introduced under the previous commissioner shows that state government had lost its way.

Ms. Elia is now expected to fix that problem, and let’s hope she can. Don’t underestimate the damage done. Her task requires restoring public trust in the ability of the state to manage public education. The future of the six public school districts in this county–the students, teachers, families and just about everybody else around here–will be affected by what she is able to accomplish.

Last April schools in Columbia County had some of the highest rates statewide of students whose parents said their kids would “opt out” of the English and math tests aligned with the Common Core standards. Nearly 70% of students in the Ichabod Crane District didn’t take those tests. Civil disobedience on this scale cannot be attributed to political views or media manipulation. It arose from the natural reaction of parents to protect their children. Whole families effectively boycotted public school policies. And the state allowed them to do it, cowering in Albany behind vague threats of future sanctions. This was an absence of leadership that bordered on anarchy.

The boycott also expressed a feeling of desperation on the part of parents and their kids. But the parents were behaving rationally with the only reasonable option left for them to use. There was pressure from the powerful teachers’ unions, which were active in opposing the tests and the performance standards linked to them. But that was a secondary issue, a grudge match stoked by Governor Cuomo. Only parents had the power to refuse to let their kids take the tests. When they exercised that power, the situation changed rapidly.

Along with the timely arrival of a new state education commissioner and new standardized testing company, the state Board of Regents has indicated a willingness to grant school districts an extra year to adopt teacher evaluations linked to students’ test scores. None of these changes assures progress in improving the education of our kids, especially the teacher evaluation standards. But it proved the point that direct, local action was the way to bring about change.

So is that how we set education policy now–by pushing parents to the breaking point?
Ms. Elia has her work cut out for her in a mess she didn’t make. If she wants to know what steps to take now she ought to come here and listen to Columbia County parents. They helped stare down the state… this time. That doesn’t mean Albany has changed but the floodgates opened by the test boycott will not be easily closed.

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