Leaders in N.Y. Flip-Flop on Common Core, Opt-Outs

By Daarel Burnette II — April 12, 2016 | Corrected: April 12, 2016 7 min read
Betty Rosa, seated, is applauded after being elected chancellor of the New York board of regents during a meeting last month in Albany. Rosa, a former superintendent from the Bronx, has voiced sympathy for the testing opt-out movement.
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Corrected: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the end of the testing company Pearson’s contract as the administrator of New York state’s standardized tests. Pearson’s contract with New York expired in December, and the state chose last summer not to pursue a renewal of the contract, instead choosing another vendor to administer the tests. The article also incorrectly described what the tests are called. They are known at the high school level as regents exams and at the elementary and middle school levels as the state’s English/language arts and mathematics tests.

Education agendas can flip in what seems like a New York minute—at least in political time.

As recently as January 2015, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo had called for New York legislators to “bust up the monopoly of public schools,” and referred to the state’s 5-year-old teacher-evaluation system as “baloney.” Decrying the state’s lackluster academic results, he proposed to base up to half of teachers’ evaluations on the state’s standardized tests aligned to the Common Core State Standards.

But then, last spring, hundreds of thousands of students opted out of the state’s exam, delivering a wave of political setbacks to what’s widely described as the state’s education “reform movement,” which, among other policies, advocates using the results of common-core-based tests to evaluate and even fire teachers.

By December, Cuomo had seemingly altered course on some of his policies, calling for “a total reboot” of the state’s common-core standards. The state’s board of regents, which oversees K-12 schools, instituted a four-year moratorium on test scores’ being used in teacher evaluations. And the state did not renew its contract with the testing company, Pearson, to administer the tests after controversies involving both the writing and administration of the exams.

Then last month, state legislators replaced three of the regents, including Chancellor Merryl Tisch, whose term was up after two decades on the board and a term as chancellor that started in 2009. She had been among those leading the push to adopt the new standards and use test scores to evaluate teachers.

The new chancellor, Betty Rosa, a former Bronx educator who was already on the board, signaled her own change of course when she said that if she were a parent, she’d opt out of the exams, too.

“We, as a board, must move away from what was the so-called ... reform movement,” Rosa said shortly after the regents elected her chancellor. “I say, welcome the transformers. We collectively as a board have a commitment of social justice and equity.”

Cuomo, whose office didn’t return a request for comment on his shifts in position, has attributed the opt-out movement’s angst to the state education department’s sloppy roll-out of the common-core standards. He’s tasked the regents to come up with more state-specific standards and to rebuild parent trust.

Taking Stock

For the state’s self-described reformers, the setback on the use of assessments and evaluations is disappointing. But they tout other successes, such as the education department’s authority as of this year to take over “persistently failing” schools and hand them over to independent operators, and the sparking of a necessary—albeit combative—debate over teacher quality.

“You can’t solve problems you don’t have information about,” said Derrell Bradford, the executive director at the New York Campaign for Achievement Now, a strong champion of using the state’s standardized-testing program to improve schools. “Saying you don’t need test data to make decisions about how to improve schools is like saying we can solve wealth inequality without income data and job reports. It’s just not real.”

In recent weeks, as the latest round of state testing got underway, opt-out activists held protests and launched a campaign that included billboards and robocalls urging parents to opt out again this year. Local reports indicate that large groups of students are still steering clear of the tests, known as regents exams at the high school level and as the state’s English/language arts and mathematics tests at the elementary and middle school levels. The exams continue through the end of April.

Students hold signs in favor of opting out of state assessments during a visit by New York’s education commissioner, MaryEllen Elia, to the William Street School in Lancaster.

The state schools chief, MaryEllen Elia, has crisscrossed the Empire State’s rural regions and city suburbs where opt-outs were most intense last year in an attempt to rebuild trust. She’s told parents and teachers that the state has shortened the English and math tests, reduced the stakes the results have for teachers and students, and tossed out confusing questions.

“I don’t want you to think it’s all done, it’s not,” Elia told teachers in Lancaster last week, according to the Associated Press. “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’s education debate mostly revolves around the role assessments play in improving schools. Cuomo, specifically, had gone back and forth on when and how to incorporate test scores in teacher evaluations.

Shortly after being re-elected in 2014, Cuomo rolled out an aggressive education agenda that included giving high-performing teachers bonuses of up to $20,000, easing the process for school districts to remove persistently bad or failing teachers, and allowing charter operators to take over failing schools. Most controversially, he said he wanted up to half of teachers’ evaluations to be based on the state’s common core-aligned test scores. The other half would be based on observations.

“The key to education reform is a teacher-evaluation system,” Cuomo said in his 2015 State of the State address. “Who are we kidding, my friends? The problem is clear, and the solution is clear. We need real, accurate, fair teacher evaluations.”

Budget-Driven Moves

The changes were tied to the governor’s budget, a move many saw as hostile and unfair. (The state is under court order to increase its education funding.)

Teachers’ unions that aggressively fought his re-election said Cuomo had declared war. Teacher effectiveness was inevitably tied to a student’s home life, they argued. The state’s overdependence on testing would turn teachers off and ultimately be ineffective, they said.

“This was a one-size-fits-all, top-down approach,” said New York State United Teachers spokesman Carl Korn.

The backlash to policies being pushed by Cuomo and the regents was intensified by New York’s testing-opt-out movement, the breadth, scope, and power of which took many by surprise.

Started by a group of angered parents and later supported by NYSUT, the movement takes credit for more than 200,000 students opting out of last year’s state exam, almost a fifth of the state’s student body and a fourfold increase from the prior year, according to the state education department.

Parents and teachers complained that students were overwhelmed with testing and about questions on the Pearson-designed test.

“We’re beginning to gain traction, but the system is still very, very wrong for kids” said Leonie Haimson, an opt-out activist and the executive director of Class Size Matters, a New York City education advocacy group. “Until the standards are revamped completely, the tests are redone completely, and all stakes removed from these exams, the opt-out movement will continue.”

Several components of Cuomo’s 2015-16 budget were scrapped before it was passed, such as his 50 percent test-score component in teacher evaluations, but key aspects of his agenda, including handing over failing schools to charter schools remain intact. Teachers will still be evaluated based on a 4-point scale, but it is up to the commissioner to determine the weight test scores will have on exams.

Task Force Review

By September of last year, in response to the state’s large opt-out numbers, Cuomo appointed a task force to review the state common-core standards.

In December, a common-core task force appointed by Cuomo reported that the state’s rollout of the standards and the tests associated with them was clumsy and haphazard.

The report found that the state education department—then led by now-U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr.—had left teachers and parents out of the decisionmaking process. Professional development had been spotty and ineffective. And the standards were inappropriate for K-2, the state’s English-language-learner population, and students with disabilities, the report said.

“The common core was supposed to ensure all of our children had the education they needed to be college- and career-ready—but it actually caused confusion and anxiety,” Cuomo said in December. “That ends now. Today, we will begin to transform our system into one that empowers parents, teachers, and local districts and ensures high standards for all students.”

After the task force came out with its recommendations, the regents put a four-year moratorium on tying test scores to teacher evaluations.

Then last month, the General Assembly, which had undergone its own political shift after the scandal-plagued speaker abruptly resigned, appointed the three new regents to the board to replace two whose terms expired and another who resigned unexpectedly. The new chancellor has since said she will work closely with the state commissioner to improve the test and review the standards. The regents are expected to vote on them this November, but they won’t go into effect until spring 2019. The state is reviewing its teacher evaluations.

“Simply put, the education system fails without parental trust,” Cuomo said in his State of the State address in January. “Our goal was to restore that trust, and we said we would correct the state education department’s common-core-curriculum-implementation mistakes and testing regimen. ... We urge the state education department to do it right this time, and we are all fully available to assist in and monitor in this effort.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 13, 2016 edition of Education Week as N.Y. Flip-Flop Affects Policy In Key Areas


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