- Associated Press - Monday, April 4, 2016

LANCASTER, N.Y. (AP) - New York’s education commissioner says the state has made major changes to the Common Core English and math assessment tests since last year when 1 in 5 students refused to take them.

With this year’s testing getting underway on Tuesday, it remains to be seen whether the differences have changed any minds.

“I don’t want you to think it’s all done, it’s not,” Commissioner MaryEllen Elia told a group of teachers in the western New York district of Lancaster, one of several she visited last week to detail the reforms. “But I also don’t want you to think we haven’t done anything and I didn’t listen because I did and we’ve made significant changes.”

New York last year saw the highest rate of opt-outs in the country as parents protested the volume of testing required under federal law and the high-stakes consequences on teachers, students and schools. The National Center for Fair and Open Testing counted more than 640,000 opt-outs in more than a dozen states, including about 240,000 in New York.

Supporters of the state’s opt-out movement were anticipating large numbers of test refusals again this year, saying the changes have not gone far enough to address their concerns.

“When you say it takes time, they don’t have the time,” parent Heidi Indelicato told Elia during a forum in Lancaster, where 46 percent of students opted out of testing last spring.

Among the biggest shifts this year, Elia said, is that student test scores will not count against teachers in their annual performance reviews as they have in the past. The policy-making Board of Regents has implemented a four-year moratorium while the state rewrites the Common Core learning standards on which the assessments are based, as well as the assessments themselves and the teacher evaluation formula.

The state also has shortened both the English assessments being given over three days this week and the math assessments students will take April 13-15. At least one reading passage and math word problem have been removed, Elia said, adding that every question has been reviewed by 22 teachers.

Additionally, time limits will be relaxed for students who are “productively working,” Elia said, and the results will come back more quickly in a report that’s intended to be easier to understand. Test vendor Pearson has been replaced by Questar, which will develop new test questions for next year with more teacher input.

“Some people, when they get the information, may change their mind. Some people may not,” said Elia, who took over the Education Department in July. “I’m accepting the fact that the most important thing we can do right now is provide information on the major changes that I think have been made and work to really get the trust back from parents and teachers and administrators across the state.”

It wasn’t enough to convince parent and teacher Christine Gust, who wanted to know how state assessments would influence teacher evaluations once the moratorium ended, something Elia said has not been determined.

“As a mom and as a teacher, I can say at this point that until I know more, my kids will not be taking the state assessments,” Gust said to applause.

Indelicato said parents want tests permanently removed from teacher evaluations and for all test questions to be made public afterward. The state last year released about half of test questions. She also called for state legislation forbidding the collection of student data without parental permission and for the federal government to confine testing mandates to fourth and eighth grade only.

“Taking away one passage and some multiple choice questions,” she said, “doesn’t cut it.”

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