MaryEllen Elia: Improving State Assessments

Feb 20, 2016

This summer, I returned to New York to take the job of State Education Commissioner. I was born, raised, and began my career here as a social studies teacher before moving to Florida in 1986. While in Florida, I continued teaching before moving onto administrative roles. I eventually became a school district superintendent.

Altogether I’ve been in education for 45 years. In that time, I’ve learned that you need to truly understand an issue before attempting to fix it. You have to hear from everyone involved to decide how best to move forward.

That’s why I spent so much of my first few months as Commissioner in the car. After 20,000-plus miles on the road, I heard a lot of concerns from a lot of New Yorkers.

It’s no surprise that much of what I heard was related to the grades 3 through 8 state assessments. I heard parents didn’t want them used in teacher evaluations. I heard they were too long. I heard there weren’t enough New York State teachers involved. I heard parents and teachers question if the tests held any value at all.

All these issues led to an unprecedented number of students opting out of last year’s State tests.

Look, tests are important. They are a necessary part of the student experience. They are the only objective measure we have to help us compare student progress between schools and school districts. They help us to identify achievement gaps between different groups of students. They help educators plan for the coming school year. And they can help teachers develop individualized learning plans for students.

I know the Grades 3 through 8 Tests in English Language Arts and Math Tests aren’t perfect. I know past tests were problematic.  And I know it might be premature to use our assessments for teacher evaluations before the assessments have been tuned up.

So, we hired a new company to help us develop future assessments. We brought teachers from across the State to Albany to review every reading passage, word problem, and multiple-choice question on this spring’s tests to make sure they’re fair. In all, every item has been reviewed by at least 22 educators. Going forward, we’ll bring even more teachers into the process.

We reduced the number of test questions and alleviated time pressure for test takers. Students who are productively working will be able to demonstrate what they know and are able to do, even if it takes more time. We’re interested in what students know, not how fast they can go.

Our tests are improved this year, but we want to make them ever better going forward. That work includes a review of our learning standards, which is happening right now. It also includes enhancing resources for teachers to help them bring our standards to life in the classroom.

Until these pieces are in place, no one should be penalized for how students are doing on the 3 through 8 ELA and Math tests. That’s why the Board of Regents approved a moratorium on using student test scores on these exams for official evaluation purposes. For the next four years, there will be no consequences for any teacher in New York because of how her students perform on the 3-8 assessments.

I know these steps are just a start. I realize the need to correct our course is urgent, but we can’t get there overnight. One reason we ended up where we are was the breakneck speed at which the state rolled out major changes affecting our schools and the way we teach our children.

We’re on the right path. If we want to stay on that path, we have to work together. I know trust is a valuable commodity, but I’m asking New Yorkers to trust in the changes we’ve made so far and the purposeful changes we’re going to make.

Our students are counting on us to give them every opportunity to succeed.  The state tests are an important yardstick to measure how well we’re meeting that responsibility.

MaryEllen Elia is New York State Education Commisioner.

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