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New Regents Chancellor expresses doubts over standardized tests

Karen DeWitt

The newly elected Chancellor to 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 yeses with two abstentions,  Betty Rosa, a Bronx native who was raised in Puerto Rico, becomes the first Latina to head the board tasked with forming education policy. Rosa , who has been 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. 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.

Chancellor 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 the vote.

A number of things have happened since March of 2015,when the state legislature, at the urging of Governor 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 Education Commissioner, Mary Ellen 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, Governor 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 State Education department. In New York governors don’t directly control education.

The 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.

Vice Chancellor 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 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  is with High Achievement New York, a pro Common Core standards group, backed by leading business groups. He 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. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.