EDITORIAL: Opt in to school compromise

ELECTION AFTERMATH, California wildfires and multiple mass shootings have seized public attention over the last week or so. What might normally interest readers or viewers finds us numb instead. Maybe a survival gene triggers our brains to tell us: Enough, already!

So if you didn’t notice, just before the election the state Board of Regents decided to give itself another year to perform a miracle. They want to convince parents, teachers, and federal and state officials that high stakes standardized testing will make kids smarter, teachers better paid and unrealistic expectations fulfilled. Is that not a miracle?

Regents are appointed by the state legislature and usually try to avoid political fights. Their job is to set education policy for the state. That’s how they framed their decision a week ago Monday when they gave themselves 12 more months to figure out what connection there should be between the performance of classroom teachers and how well students do on standardized math and English exams.

Their announcement, issued after a meeting of the Board of Regents, was a terse statement saying in part that Education Commissioner Mary Ellen Elia and the State Education Department have been directed to “present a proposed regulation to extend the moratorium delinking student assessments from teacher evaluations for one year through 2019-20.”

This isn’t the first time the Regents and the Education Department have had a “delinking” problem. The issue made news a few years ago when Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed a system of teacher evaluations that could have cost some teachers their jobs. Governor Cuomo didn’t invent this approach to managing educational laborers (teachers) by their productivity (kids’ scores). The federal government offered billions of dollars to states if they agreed to evaluate teachers using test scores. But after this state took the money teachers pushed back against a one-test-fits-all job performance measurement.

There also wasn’t much public support for the plan to treat students like widgets on a high stakes assembly line. Parents and students hated preparing for and taking three days of tests. It wasn’t long before a statewide, grassroots protest blossomed, with parents refusing to allow their kids to take the tests. This “opt-out” movement became so widespread that it undermined the quality of the test data and ran the risk of having the federal government demand its money back.

Schools in Columbia County had some of the highest rates of opting out of the tests. In the first year of the statewide protest 6 out of 10 Ichabod Crane Central School District students scheduled to take the tests didn’t. The number of opt-out protest participants has diminished in succeeding years, but it hasn’t gone away.

Last June there was grumbling after the Regents approved new proposals that appeared to authorize Education Commissioner Elia to force school districts with inadequate test scores to devote some of their federal funding to improving those scores. In other words, it seemed like students would be punished for the inability of the grownups in educational bureaucracy to come up with better ways to improve the kids’ test scores.

The commissioner has said since then that schools with high opt out rates aren’t going to face loss of funds as a result. She has also cut back on the length of the tests as a demonstration of her interest in finding some sort of compromise. A moratorium took effect last year, and yet there is still no plan for how the state will get out of this bind.

The Regents and Commissioner Elia have to work within federal guidelines that are part of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act adopted during the Obama administration. And the press release from the Regents last week says that the Education Department “will continue its work to gain feedback from teachers, educators, parents and other stakeholders as it looks to reform the evaluation system.”

That’s a laudable goal but “feedback” won’t resolve this impasse. That can only be done by political muscle exercised by politicians.

In January, when Democrats will control the state Senate and the Assembly as well as the governor’s mansion, the first order of business will be the state budget. The 2019-20 state budget must include adequate funds for long-term academic improvements for the kids who need them most and a fair approach to teacher job performance reviews.

Lawmakers and the governor should fund radically reduced test length and cut a deal that respects the job teachers do so they can keep the federal funds. It’s a messy miracle but a necessary one.

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