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New Regents chancellor expresses doubt in current standardized tests

Karen DeWitt
WRVO News File Photo
Newly-elected Regents Vice Chancellor Andrew Brown, Chancellor Betty Rosa, and Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia take questions from the media.

The newly elected chancellor of the Board of Regents, Betty Rosa, expressed grave doubts about the state’s use of standardized tests in the schools, saying if she were not on the Board of Regents, she would join the opt-out movement and not permit her children to take the tests.

By a vote of 15 for and two abstentions, Betty Rosa, a Bronx native who was raised in Puerto Rico, becomes the first Latina to head the board tasked with forming state education policy. Rosa, who has been a regent since 2008, has a long history of working in the New York City schools system, focusing on bilingual instruction, including as a superintendent of all of the schools in the Bronx.

Rosa takes over at a tumultuous time in education in New York state. Parents and teachers have been roiling over a fast-tracked implementation of the Common Core learning standards and related tests, and last spring one-fifth of students boycotted the standardized tests administered to children in the third through eighth grade.

Rosa concedes that if her now adult children were still school aged, and she were not on the Regents board, she’d join the boycott.

“If I was a parent and I was not on the Board of Regents, I would opt out at this time,” Rosa told reporters in a news conference after being elected chancellor.

A number of things have happened since March 2015,when the state legislature, at the urging of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, approved new teacher evaluations that tied performance reviews more closely to the tests. There’s been a moratorium imposed on the tests actually effecting teacher’s ratings, as well as student rankings, until the 2019-20 school year.

Rosa says she realizes many parents are still not satisfied with the changes so far, and the board, which now has several new members, is very open to reexamining issues, including alternative ways to measure the progress of children and their teachers.

“We have to rebuild that trust,” Rosa said. “We have to rebuild a sense that we’re in this together.”

Rosa would not say whether her goal is to reduce the number of students opting out from the tests when they are administered later this spring.

That puts her on a slightly different page from the recently-appointed state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia. Elia modified the tests in the past several months. She says a new testing company that is more open to teacher input will be fully in place by next year, the tests have been shortened, and students will be given more time to complete them. She’s been urging parents to allow their children to take the tests, saying even with the present flaws, they give valuable feedback on what works and doesn’t work in the classroom.

“I do believe that the tests that we have in place are better,” said Elia. “There is a benefit for the assessments to be given to our students.”

Until recently, Cuomo took a leading role in urging the speedy implementation of Common Core, and the policy of relying more heavily on standardized tests to measure teachers and students. Cuomo, after a bitter feud with the teachers unions, late last year shifted that responsibly back to the Regents and the New York State Education Department. In New York, governors don’t directly control education policy.

Newly-elected Regents Vice Chancellor Andrew Brown, a Rochester attorney, says he thinks the Regents will function better without interference from the  politicians.

“As all of you know, teacher evaluations have been the product of the governor’s office and the legislature,” said Brown.

Brown says he hopes that going forward parents will now have more faith and that fewer children will opt out of the tests this year.

The selection of Rosa and Brown drew praise from many in the education community, including the New York State School Boards Association, and the teachers union, New York State United Teachers. NYSUT Vice President Catalina Fortino, who has worked with Rosa in the past, says there’s a new opportunity to finally fix the flaws in how Common Core and the tests have been rolled out.

Fortino says the focus should be on how student assessment more accurately lines up with classroom instruction, rather than the “one snapshot of standardized tests.”

Stephen Sigmund, with High Achievement New York, a pro-Common Core standards group, backed by leading business groups, says the newly configured Board of Regents is going to be more challenging to work with. And he says Rosa’s statement that she might not allow her children to take the tests if she were not a Regent is worrisome.

“Obviously, that concerns us,” said Sigmund. “We disagree with her on that. But we think she said pretty clearly in her comments that she’s open to changing that point of view as the tests change and as they improve.”

Sigmund says the shift to the new Common Core standards and the related tests is in federal law, and he says he hopes the board is receptive to the majority of parents in New York, who he says are content with the way things are.

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.