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Legislature takes step toward decoupling student test scores from teacher evals

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Teachers wouldn’t be evaluated based on their students’ standardized test scores any longer under a measure approved by the New York State Assembly. It’s a reversal of a controversial policy that helped lead to a widespread boycott of the third- through eighth-grade tests associated with the former Common Core program.

But the measure faces an uncertain future in the state Senate.

Early in his term in office, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state’s former top education officials all championed a policy to use the test results to rate teacher performance. At the same time, the 2010 national Common Core standards were being implemented, and the number of standardized tests that students were required to take multiplied.

There was a backlash from teachers and parents, and in 2015, there was a boycott of some tests, which continues this year.

Cuomo has since distanced himself from the policy. In late 2015, he endorsed a moratorium on linking the tests to student and teacher performance rankings.

And now, the state Assembly has passed a bill to get rid of the requirement altogether. The final vote was 131 to 1.

Opposition to the former Common Core standards and the associated tests became a rare bipartisan issue at the Capitol. Assemblyman Steve Otis, a Democrat from Westchester, voted for the repeal.

“We heard from school superintendents, school board members, teachers, parents — the same message, all united,” Otis said. “They didn’t think the state tests were helping them teach kids.”

Assemblyman Fred Thiele, a Republican from Long Island, said the change would restore local control to school districts.

“This was probably the single worst idea that ever came out of Albany,” Thiele said. “And I am glad that today we are finally reversing that.”

Assembly Education Committee Chairwoman Cathy Nolan, a Queens Democrat, offered a veiled criticism of the governor in her remarks on the floor, saying she and many other lawmakers felt the policy would spur a revolt.

“We warned the executive of this in 2015,” Nolan said. “That there might indeed be people feeling overwhelmed and not wanting their children to take these tests. We’ve seen that that has been the result.”

Nolan said the measure does not preclude individual school districts from using the test score results as part of their teacher evaluations, if everyone at the school agrees. But the state’s current education commissioner, Mary Ellen Elia, would be required to come up with alternative assessments to be used to measure teacher performance.

In the state Senate, Sen. Jim Tedisco, a former teacher, is sponsoring a similar measure. Tedisco, a Republican from Schenectady, said the list of supporters has grown to 38 senators, but there is still some opposition to putting the bill on the floor for a vote.

“We’re going to work to, no pun intended, educate my colleagues on the importance of not using a standardized test as the Holy Grail for evaluating kids,” Tedisco said. “Or by extension evaluating teachers.”

Tedisco said he thinks the governor is moving further away from the original policy to link the tests to teacher evaluations because he faces a Democratic primary challenge from the politically progressive actor Cynthia Nixon. Nixon told a meeting of the state’s largest teachers union, New York State United Teachers, that she would repeal the policy.

“It seems every time she makes a statement, he follows through with what she has to say,” said Tedisco, who added that while he and Nixon likely disagree on most issues, she is “right” to want to decouple the test scores from the teacher evaluations.

A spokesman for Cuomo, Rich Azzopardi, said in a statement that the governor’s staff has been "working with the Legislature and education community for months to address this issue” and would “like to reach a resolution this session” if possible.

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.