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New York state could cancel tests, again

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With the coronavirus pandemic still coursing across the country and the vaccine rollout yet to hit its stride, leaders in the Five Towns public school districts agree with the New York State United Teachers union that this school year’s state standardized tests for grades three through eight should be canceled, and possibly the state Regents exams as well.

The standardized tests and the Regents were canceled last year, and the Regents exams that were scheduled to be given in January were called off as well.

The Regents tests are unique to New York and are under the jurisdiction of the State Education Department, but canceling the standardized tests requires a waiver from the federal government because of the Every Student Succeeds Act that governs public education.

In a letter to State Education Commissioner Betty Rosa dated Jan. 14, Jolene DiBrango, NYSUT’s executive vice president, wrote, “Throughout this school year there has not been a standardized mode of instruction across the state. Schools have varying degrees of in-person, hybrid and remote instruction. Without standardized instructional modes there should not be a standardized test at the end of the year.”

NYSUT represents more than 600,000 elementary through collegiate teachers and professors, school-related professionals, health care employees and retirees.

Lawrence district Superintendent Dr. Ann Pedersen sad that regardless of the mode of instruction, teachers are meeting mandated standards and educational objectives remain the same, but she believes that all the tests should be canceled.

“Because of the stressors on the students, I’m in favor of not administering the tests,” she said, pointing to the high-stakes pressure the tests create for children. At the same time, she said, “We must make sure they are performing, and as school districts we all administer testing to check the growth slope, and if the students are acquiring new skills at the appropriate rate.”

Administrators and teachers, Pedersen said, are concerned about students’ mental health, in light of national studies that point to a mental health crisis brought on by the pandemic that is leading to an increase in suicides.

From last March, when the pandemic began, to October, children’s visits to hospitals for mental health problems rose 31 percent for 12- to 17-year-olds and 24 percent for 5- to 11-year-olds over the same period in 2019, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Lori Skonberg, president of the Lawrence Teachers Association and a teacher at the middle school, agreed that all of the tests should be canceled. “Nothing is normal right now,” she said, noting that now is not the right time to assess students. “The absentee rate is higher in many schools, and we are not seeing the same growth from students at home as in the classroom.”

Hewlett-Woodmere officals have said in the past that the district has not tried to persuade parents to have their children take the standardized tests this year.

Previously, Hewlett-Woodmere district officials have said they do not place great emphasis on the state tests, focusing instead on the Northwest Evaluation Association Measure of Academic Progress. The Portland, Ore.-based organization uses research to create what it calls “assessment solutions” that measure student growth and academic skills.

Ric Stark, a Hewlett High School science teacher who is president of the Hewlett-Woodmere Faculty Association, said that the union fully supports the suspension of standardized and Regents exams this year.

“Of all years, this school year has been anything but standardized,” Stark said. “We have students attending in person every day, some attending one-half of the time, some attending the other half of the time and some who are fully remote.” 

Students who are dealing with the circumstances of the pandemic outside the classroom are another reason for waiving the testing requirements, Stark said.

“Some students have limited internet access at home, or are competing with siblings for a small number of devices,” he said. “Many have been quarantined, some have been ill with Covid themselves and a few have lost family members. To now expect these students to take a standardized test under these conditions and claim that it will have any validity whatsoever is beyond idiotic.”

In reaction to the letter from NYSUT, State Education Department spokeswoman Emily DeSantis released a statement that read, “No decisions have been made regarding the June and August 2021 administrations of Regents examinations or any of the other state assessment programs. That decision will be fully informed by all available and relevant public health and educational data. And as always, we will put the health and safety of students and teachers first.”

The Education Department is accepting public comments until Feb. 5. They can be submitted to essacomments@nysed.gov.

Have an opinion on whether state tests should be canceled? Send a letter to jbessen@liherald.