EDITORIAL: How can we end opting out?

Uh huh.
You mean Dad’s old computer?
Be serious, Sweetie, and turn off your phone.
Yeah, Mom, I know.

PUBLIC SCHOOLS OPENED this week, and you could hear parents sharing their relief that the kids are out of the house and back on a schedule. But if the end of the last school year was any indication, parents are worried too. They’re worried about the standardized tests meant to measure student progress and teacher performance.

The new state education commissioner, MaryEllen Elia, has been traveling the state hearing about why 20% of students in grades 3 to 8 statewide did not take standardized English and math tests last year. She was in Greene County last week talking with teachers about what’s bothering them, according to the Times Union newspaper. Too bad she didn’t drop in on the Ichabod Crane Central School District while she was in the neighborhood.

You’d think ICC would have been a logical choice. The parents of over 60% of students in grades 3 through 8 in the ICC District refused to allow their kids to take the lengthy, controversial exams allegedly aligned with the Common Core learning standards. The biggest school district in this county had the highest test opt-out rate in the Capital Region.

Ms. Elia was not responsible for the testing regime that led to the opt-out protests. But she managed to create problems for herself when the press reported that she was consulting lawyers about the legal and financial consequences for school districts with large numbers of students opting out.

As the commissioner of education she has a duty to ask for informed opinions on whether the federal government could withhold funding for states with high opt-out rates. She also needs to know if her department is obligated to take any action when parents refuse to allow their kids to take an exam, even excessively long and poorly designed tests like the ones foisted on kids the last few years.

But it was distressingly naive of her to rush into this debate without first building some level of public trust in her judgment. She needed allies who could have helped her allay some of the deep suspicions parents now have about the competence of the state’s educational leadership. Everything about education policy is political. If she doesn’t learn this lesson quickly, she’ll soon be toast.

So why doesn’t Governor Cuomo step in and impose order on the testing chaos? He can’t. The state Board of Regents appoints the commissioner, and the regents are appointed by a combined vote of the state Assembly and Senate. The governor is a bystander in terms of hiring and firing, but he isn’t powerless.  And while he doesn’t admit it, he’s also been part of the problem.

Mr. Cuomo sets the agenda for the state budget, though he must negotiate the final figures with the leaders of the Assembly and Senate. This includes the money for public schools. As part of the last budget the governor insisted on a requirement that student performance on the flawed tests be used as half of each teacher’s annual performance review. The review will determine which teachers keep their jobs and which ones are let go. It was an ill-conceived, unfair plan and his insistence on having his way only made parents more wary of the whole testing process.

Last week the governor announced formation of the third panel in two years he has convened to recommend ways to improve the state’s public school curriculum and the way the state measures the progress of students.

We don’t need another study. That won’t help kids learn nor will it defuse the anger and mistrust that spawned the opt-out movement. Those bad feelings are still simmering. Unless all the parties in Albany–the governor, lawmakers and the regents–can find a way to compromise, more parents will opt out when the tests are given again next spring.

State government has to agree that the roll-out of Common Core standards must be re-imagined and restarted; the tests must be redesigned before new exams are created; and teachers must have a meaningful voice in developing performance reviews. These are political chores and only the governor has the clout to make them happen. He might fail if he tries, but if he doesn’t try in earnest ,he will bear the responsibility and our children will pay the price.

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