East End Students Faced With Tougher Regents Testing

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Elementary and middle school students across New York State put their pencils down in opposition to new state exams that began in earnest last Tuesday. Their parents, displeased with the state’s new rigorous testing model, reportedly told them to “opt out” and not take the tests, which will wrap up on Friday. Districts could be penalized, but individual students will not.

While opting out seemed to be a trend across Long Island, the vast majority of students on the South Fork took the exams—but found they had to race the clock to finish some sections. In many cases, they did not finish, which will affect their scores.

Some teachers and administrators on the South Fork said this week that they wished they had more time to implement the Common Core curriculum—a new state-mandated teaching standard that calls for more non-fiction reading and writing and a deeper understanding of math concepts—before their students were tested on it. For the most part, however, they said they were supportive of the new tests, but hope that the State Education Department will tweak the time allotted for more difficult sections for next year’s exams.

The big switch to the Common Core standards over the last two years has been difficult for administrators and teachers, because they have had to rewrite curriculum and change their teaching methods.

In 2009, the National Governors Association hired David Coleman, the president of the not-for-profit College Board that designs the SAT test and Advanced Placement test, to write literacy and math curriculum standards. The standards were designed to give students a robust and relevant education—a common core of standards—to prepare them for success in college and their careers.

In 2010, New York State adopted the national benchmarks. New York is one of 46 states that have formally adopted the Common Core.

To help implement the new standards, the state has provided modules, or lesson plans, on its Common Core website, www.engageny.org, in addition to other resources for teachers and administrators.

This school year’s state ELA and math tests were the first to reflect the Common Core curriculum standards, making for more rigorous and time-consuming exams. According to the State Education Department, students must answer questions with evidence gathered from rigorous literature and informational texts and solve math problems rooted in the real world and decide which formulas and tools to use to solve them.

Dr. John B. King Jr., the state commissioner of education, said state officials were expecting scores to be lower this year because it was a completely different test, but said that the results will inform educators and parents where the state is with respect to the Common Core and college and career readiness.

Testing requires anywhere from seven to nine hours, depending on grade level, over a period of six days.

Of course, with brand new assessments, problems arise. As parents caught word about the changes to the tests and the possibility of lower scores, some of them reportedly began to boycott the exams by telling their children not to take them.

Schools from Westhampton Beach to Montauk saw virtually no “opt-outs,” but in Eastport South Manor, 24 students did not take the exams. Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum Dr. Jennifer Morrison-Hart would not say why the students refrained from taking the tests, but said that there was no such thing as an “opt out,” that it was simply a refusal to take the exams. Those students who did not take the tests will be counted as “not tested.” Any school with a participation rate below 95 percent could lose federal funding because they would fail to make their adequate yearly progress, according to the education department.

She said while she believes the Common Core implementation and testing is a step in the right direction, she understands their frustration. “It’s very difficult when you are obligated to administer exams when there is so much stress and anxiety,” she said. “You just want to do what’s right for the child, but it doesn’t always feel like the right thing.”

Jack Perna, Montauk School’s superintendent, said that no one refused to take the test at his school, but he understands why someone would, especially since the test results will affect the Annual Professional Performance Review teacher assessments.

In 2010, New York was awarded a grant of nearly $700 million under the federal Race to the Top program, a U.S. Department of Education contest created to spur education reform in state and local district education. In turn, the state mandated that each school district implement its own APPR program to evaluate its teachers.

Twenty percent of teacher evaluations will be based on state-provided growth scores taken from ELA and math tests. This year, however, to accommodate possible low scores, growth will be measured by comparing 2011-12 school year state scores and this year’s Common Core state test, and will take into consideration a student’s characteristics and academic history and that of their peers.

“I think people are fed up with it,” Mr. Perna said of the new tests. “You hear about how there is too much testing in elementary schools—we’ve always tested, but this is more high-stakes testing that will affect APPR. Is that fair to the kids? Probably not.”

Bridgehampton, East Hampton and Springs schools did not see any opt-outs either. One Southampton student opted out of the tests.

Those that faced the state exams struggled with finishing some of their sections. According to the New York State Council of School Superintendents, superintendents are speculating that the education department “miscalculated” the amount of time required for the testing for some grade levels, and some questions were difficult, even tricky, requiring students to go back and reread passages to zero in on correct answers.

Southampton Intermediate School teacher Kerry Palumbo said time was “definitely an issue.”

“It was difficult for them to pace themselves—there were a lot of questions and passages, and you only have 90 minutes,” she said. “You don’t know what’s coming and how much time it’s going to take you. Students had to read closely, and they did that beautifully.”

Many superintendents said this week that they wished their teachers had more time to work within the Common Core standards before students were tested on them. They said that while the state was helpful in rolling out new modules and lesson plans, some grades didn’t receive all of them in time and training came later than what they would have preferred.

“The state training has been rolled out very late, not providing lead time for teachers who feel very much like they are fueling the jet while it is in mid-air,” Bridgehampton School Superintendent Dr. Lois Favre said. “Teachers are not resistant to learning the new skills, nor do they believe that the shift to a new way of thinking about learning is not needed. They would just appreciate it if they could be afforded the necessary time and training needed to make the shift in a more non-threatening environment and in a time frame that permits real, ongoing change to occur.”

Westhampton Beach School Superintendent Michael Radday, who had one student opt out, agreed with Dr. Favre that more time should have been given. “I think we should always be trying to provide students with comprehensive, rigorous education, and I think the Common Core will help us in doing so. But I think the mistake was made at the state level by rushing to these new assessments rather than giving students and teachers time to implement the Common Core and make the necessary shifts,” he said, adding that resources were slow in coming from the state. “I think students were as well-prepared as they could be based on the time frame given.”

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