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Schools get waivers amid shift away from standardized testing



Three-quarters of school districts in the state have applied for waivers from the new teacher evaluation rules set out by Gov.Andrew Cuomo and the legislature in March. The news comes amidst lots of changes, including the leadership of the state Board of Regents.

According to the New York State Education Department, 420 of the state’s more than 700 school districts have been granted waivers. That means they can delay implementation of the controversial new teacher and principal evaluation system, which relies more heavily on standardized tests,  for another year.

There are 106 applications for a waiver are still pending. Waivers have been denied to 19 school districts, but they have been asked to resubmit their paperwork and may still get permission for a delay

The actions essentially roll back rules pushed by Cuomo, and approved by the legislature, as part of the state budget in March.

Carl Korn, a spokesman for the teachers union New York State United Teachers, said the timeline was unrealistic.

“The process of designing a new evaluation system was complicated and convoluted and involved many moving parts,” said Korn, who said it’s no surprise that districts and their teachers unions simply ran out of time.

The new teacher evaluations allows districts to develop their own standardized tests, if they want to, to evaluate teachers. Korn said the state education department has not had the time in the past six months to approve those alternative tests.

Tim Kremer, with the New York State School Boards Association, said it’s a turning point in what has become a battle between schools, teachers, parents and New York’s elected leaders over standardized testing and its effects.

“I think there was some political statement taking place here,” Kremer said. “People are saying ‘Enough of this. We keep changing the rules , then we have to go negotiate.’”

The mass granting of waivers to delay the new teacher rating system comes as political leaders, including President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, are shifting away from an emphasis on standardized testing. The president and Secretary Duncan said recently they are dialing back on testing and they admitted that the administration helped contribute to the over-testing of students.

Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch announced this week, several months before her term is up, that she won’t be running again. Tisch led the push toward greater emphasis on standardized testing as well as a fast track to adopt the new Common Core learning standards. At the Regents’ monthly meeting, Tisch addressed critics who said shebotched the roll out of Common Core.

“Some people say it was too much at once, some even say it was implemented poorly,” Tisch said. “I say, we disrupted stagnation, we disrupted complacency and we tried to imbue the system with urgency.”

Cuomo, who championed the new teacher evaluation system and feuded publicly with teachers and their union, has also taken a step back. He created a new commission to re-evaluate Common Core.

“We must fix it and we must fix it now,” Cuomo said in a recorded announcement.

Cuomo also appointed a new deputy secretary for education, a schools superintendent from Westchester who is a Common Core critic.

Korn, with the teachers’ union, saida widespread boycott of the standardized tests last spring, where 20 percent of parents opted their children out of the tests, has also fueled  changes.

“The pendulum on standardized testing is clearly swinging back,” Korn said. “Back in the right direction.”

Schools can re-apply for the waivers again next year, which could delay the implementation of the new ratings system for teachers as well as principals, for yet another school year.

Before that happens, though,Cuomo’s commission is due to issue its report in December and the state education commissioner is also doing an independent review of Common Core and related issues. So, it’s possible that the new rules could be reversed.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.