12/14/13 8:00am
12/14/2013 8:00 AM

Testing

The term Common Core has been used in these pages and elsewhere to describe the new policies and practices schools are being asked to adopt by the State Education Department. However, Common Core is just one portion of these reforms and, based on what I read in Michael White’s column and the overwhelming parent and teacher response at the education commissioner’s forums and on social media sites, folks are using Common Core as a catch-all term for the entire program. People are actually concerned about the new state assessments, the new teacher evaluation system (called Annual Professional Performance Review, or APPR) and potential profiteering by private corporate interests related to these reforms.

Common Core, on its own, is a relatively benign list of things that a student should know and be able to do by the end of a given school year in a given course. You can review the standards themselves at corestandards.org. These standards were authored by the National Governors’ Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers and the nonprofit Student Achievement Partners. Do these organizations have agendas? Of course they do. Every advocacy organization does. Are those agendas to steal money and autonomy from school districts? Hardly. Teachers will still be able to do good work in a Common Core classroom just like they were when the concept of standards was first introduced nationally in President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind reform initiative.

Claims that major publishing corporations like Pearson Inc. “wrote the standards” have no merit outside the fantasyland of sites like Breitbart.com  and its ilk. Any publisher worth its salt is aligning old materials and developing new materials to the Core, much as they did when the NCLB standards came out in the early 2000s, but they still must compete for district dollars to purchase those resources. New standards, same old publishing business. If you are interested in seeing a change in where schools spend their money, fighting Common Core is not where I’d spend your time or energy.

Ironically, the Common Core era, combined with the increased availability of inexpensive computer hardware like Chromebooks and tablets, has made it possible for teachers to implement inexpensive or free digital instructional resources, such as Khan Academy, Learnzillion and Brainpop. This movement has publishers like Pearson scrambling to hold on to their textbook and instructional materials revenues, as textbooks become dinosaurs and teachers are easily able to analyze results of a class quiz online and assign individualized activities to each student using a variety of free and open-source instructional programs.

Standards — Common Core or the old state standards — are goals, and teachers plan the path for getting students to the goals. If parents and teachers were only being asked to contemplate Common Core without the rest of the pieces that have come with it, we’d not have a rebellion on our hands. But, as they say, the horses are already out of the barn. Teachers are being given letter grades based on student test scores over which they may or may not have any control. Good teachers are getting disappointing grades and being told they must do better but, in some cases, doing better means magically removing a student’s learning disability, changing a student’s general motivation to take a multiple-choice test, or increasing the amount of exposure to literature and informational texts in a student’s home and family life. The APPR system has few defenders statewide, even in Albany. APPR can easily be removed or revised without disrupting the state department’s other initiatives, including Common Core.

The New York State Testing Program has been much maligned since it added the grades 3-8 assessments during the NCLB era. Pearson has the state testing contract, and there have been all sorts of problems and complications over the years, but Pearson has been making money by selling tests to districts and state departments since the invention of the test and will probably continue to do so throughout the next 100 years of rides on the educational reform roller coaster. In my work, I travel the country visiting with district leaders and educators and I can tell you pretty confidently that no state’s assessment contractor is respected or loved. Swap Pearson for CTB or Riverside Publishing and we’re probably having the same conversation here.

The movement against these reforms would be stronger if it divides and conquers. The State Education Department is not going to abandon its entire agenda, but it is conceivable to see them backing off from some of its components, particularly with such vocal and unanimous resistance across the state. Ask yourself: Would you be OK with a new set of learning goals for your children if the state department eased up on all the testing and if your child’s teacher didn’t feel as if she/he were under attack by the APPR system? Encourage your representatives in Albany to pick one component of the reform agenda and start there.

And give Common Core a second look. Without APPR and the new tests, it’s just a suggested list of things to teach in a given grade level and subject area, not the diabolical evil force it’s been depicted to be.

Doug Roberts is a consultant and entrepreneur in the educational technology sector who describes his work as standards- and publisher-agnostic. He lives in Greenport.

12/13/13 3:30pm
12/13/2013 3:30 PM
COURTESY PHOTO | State Senator John Flanagan during his press conference in Brentwood on Thursday.

COURTESY PHOTO | State Senator John Flanagan during his press conference in Brentwood on Thursday.

State Senator John Flanagan is calling on the state Department of Education to delay using a controversial method of storing student data electronically for one year and proposing legislation to ban standardized testing for students in pre-K through 2nd grade.

Mr. Flanagan (R-East Northport), who chairs the senate’s Standing Committee on Education, is also sponsoring legislation to create independent oversight, as well as establishing civil and criminal penalties for unauthorized disclosure of personal information stored on the state’s student data portal received from public schools.

The actions are based on his committee’s report, “The Regents Reform Agenda: ‘Assessing’ Our Progress,” which Mr. Flanagan unveiled Thursday during a press conference in Brentwood.

[Scroll down to view the complete report]

In the report, privacy experts and school administrators raised concerns about the ability of unauthorized third-parties to access personally identifiable information, or PII, of students, teachers and principals that are collected on the state portal.

Many parents and educators have protested an agreement the state has made with inBloom, Inc. to store student data because they fear personal records could be compromised.

Strengthening public school privacy protections is one part of a series of legislative actions Mr. Flanagan is proposing.

The report includes testimony given during five public hearings Mr. Flanagan has held in recent months that sought public feedback on the state’s implementation of Common Core.

Merryl Tisch, the Board of Regents chancellor, issued a statement Friday in response to Mr. Flanagan’s report.

“While we have concerns about some aspects of the report, it’s clear that Senator Flanagan has put together some strong recommendations that we look forward to working collaboratively to address,” Ms. Tisch said in a press release.

The Common Core State Standards has been nationally recognized and adopted by most states across the country that claims to better prepare students for college and careers by requiring instructors to teach more non-fiction and rigorous math to students at a younger age.

After New York adopted Common Core, the state published lesson plans for teachers to help students achieve the new standards. The state doesn’t mandate that schools use these lesson plans, but they are available online at engageny.org.

Earlier this year, and as part of Race to the Top requirements, the state did direct New York school districts develop their own teacher evaluation systems, known as annual professional performance reviews plan (APPR), lest the districts risk losing additional available state aid.

The state Department of Education has been heavily criticized by school officials across New York for pushing the new mandates before districts were ready for them. While many educators embraced Common Core when it was first introduced, they’ve since demanded that the state hold off on implementing the new student assessments based on Common Core and the APPR plan until the rigorous curriculum is properly implemented inside the classroom.

Some of the concerns raised in Mr. Flanagan’s report include: over-testing of students, inadequate professional development funding for teacher training, incomplete and missing modules and the use of test questions that were neither age-level nor developmentally appropriate.

Mr. Flanagan’s committee also heard testimony from parents about their “children experiencing severe stress, anxiety and frustrations as they struggled to understand the new curriculum, while also trying to learn in a whole new way.” The committee also hear about teachers’ “exasperation over the lack of time and resources given to professional development training in order to adequately prepare lesson plans before teaching and testing their students,” according to a press release issued by his office Thursday.

As a result of the testimony given, the report recommends the state Department of Education immediately address several concerns, such as expediting waivers from the U.S. Department of Education “to relax onerous and rigid testing restrictions placed on certain students,” especially with English as a Second Language students and students with disabilities; producing all missing or incomplete curriculum modules; aligning assessments proportionally to curriculum actually implemented; and increasing funding for the professional development of teachers.

As for the state Legislature, Mr. Flanagan is proposing several bills for approval, including requiring state Department of Education commissioner John King to review APPR plans and eliminate unnecessary student assessments. If approved, Mr. King will also be required to report on the effectiveness of Common Core tests and programing with an independent audit.

Mr. Flanagan described the recommendations contained within the report as “a good first step in addressing the concerns heard by the committee, which overwhelmingly revolved around the issue of over-testing.”

“Setting rigorous academic standards to ensure that all students are college and career ready should always be an important goal to attain,” he said. “However, it must balanced by a fair and even implementation of those new standards to allow our children to adjust and adapt appropriately.”

The report will be submitted to the Board of Regents, Mr. King and Governor Andrew Cuomo, officials said.

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The Regents Reform Agenda: ‘Assessing’ Our Progress,

11/26/13 10:30am
11/26/2013 10:30 AM
COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY PRESS PHOTO | New York State Education Department commissioner John King.

COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY PRESS PHOTO | New York State Education Department commissioner John King.

A public forum with New York Department of Education commissioner John King is set for 6 p.m. tonight at Eastport-South Manor High School in Manorville.

While the forum will be open to the public on a first-come, first-served basis, state officials said speakers will be chosen prior to the meeting.

State Senator Ken LaValle(R-Port Jefferson)  has asked local superintendents to meet with their school’s community members — including parents, students, teachers, and PTAs — to organize their comments and questions relating to Common Core, teacher evaluations, standardized testing and student privacy, and submit them to his office by last Thursday.

Riverhead School District officials have said only one question from each school district will be allowed based on submittals, and a seat at the event will be reserved for each of the speakers chosen.

Tonight’s forum comes about a month after Mr. King was criticized for canceling some previously scheduled meetings, which he said at the time were being “co-opted by special interests whose stated goal was to ‘dominate’ the questions and manipulate the forum.”

The Common Core State Standards Initiative is a new set of standards that requires instructors to teach more non-fiction and rigorous math to students at a younger age. The Common Core standards were created by nonprofit organizations, including the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, as a way to better prepare students from across the U.S. for college and careers after high school.

While the state has claimed the Common Core program aims to better prepare students for college and careers, many educators have criticized the initiative because they believe it forces teachers to abandon true learning and “teach to the test.”

Check back later for live coverage.

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11/12/13 4:00pm
11/12/2013 4:00 PM
COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY PRESS PHOTO | New York State Education Department commissioner John King.

COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY PRESS PHOTO | New York State Education Department commissioner John King.

Residents will no longer have to sign up with their local school districts to secure a seat for the Nov. 26 public meeting with New York Department of Education commissioner John King, state Senator Ken LaValle’s office said Tuesday.

A sign-up list won’t be necessary because a larger venue has been secured at the Eastport-South Manor High School auditorium in Manorville, Mr. LaValle’s spokesman Drew Biondo said. Entry will be determined on a first-come, first-serve basis, Mr. Biondo said.

Mr. LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) has said he was working to relocate the meeting from Riverhead High School’s 800-seat auditorium to a new location in order to accommodate a larger crowd. Last week, the state Department of Education posted on its website that the meeting will take place in Manorville. Eastport’s auditorium can accommodate 1,000 people, a school spokesperson said.

Mr. Biondo said the senator is also looking to live stream the event. Additional details will be released closer to the meeting date, he said.

On Tuesday, Mr. King is expected to address state Senator John Flanagan’s (R-East Northport) constituents at Ward Melville High School in East Setauket from 6 to 8 p.m.

Mr. Flanagan’s office said the meeting is open to the public. Although seating capacity is 900 in that auditorium, the school will be able to accommodate an additional 400 seats in the cafeteria where the event will be live streamed.

The forums are designed to answer questions and provide information to the public on the Common Core Stand Standards Initiative, teacher evaluations and state assessments.

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11/07/13 7:00am
11/07/2013 7:00 AM
NEWS-REVIEW FILE PHOTO | Tonight's Riverhead school board meeting is at 7 p.m.

NEWS-REVIEW FILE PHOTO | A public forum on the Common Core State Standards Initiative was originally going to be held at Riverhead High School.

Close to a month ago, New York Education commissioner John King canceled the only meeting on Long Island he had scheduled for hearing direct feedback from the public about the Common Core State Standards Initiative, a controversial federal program that has dominated headlines over the past few months.

To his credit, Mr. King not only rescheduled the canceled meeting, originally planned for Garden City, but added three more as well – two in Suffolk County and another in Nassau.

But getting from the scheduling phase to the implementation phase – particularly in the case of the new meeting scheduled in Riverhead on Nov. 26 – appears to be a little more challenging than it should be.

State Senator Ken LaValle told News-Review staff this week that Riverhead High School’s auditorium wouldn’t be big enough to host the meeting. Mr. LaValle said he hopes to find a venue that can hold 1,000 people, 200 more than a brand-new Riverhead auditorium can handle.

And that leaves us scratching our heads.

As if getting the state education commissioner to Suffolk County wasn’t challenging enough – and, lucky us, his office even suggested meeting in Riverhead – Mr. LaValle, our elected official — it seems, is making the process even more complicated than it needs to be. A state education spokesperson told us last week, “We are working with the senator to pick a location” — but it sure doesn’t seem like it. While we’re being told by Mr. LaValle that the meeting won’t be held in Riverhead, the state’s website, as of presstime, still said it would be.

We certainly understand the desire to include as many people as possible in the meeting. This is an important topic that affects children all across Mr. LaValle’s district. However, we do have to question the logic of attempting to add 200 seats at the expense of throwing another wrench into this already messy and contentious process. It’s a sad state of affairs when leaders who play such a large role in our children’s future have such difficulty scheduling public meetings on a topic as important as this one.

Then they wonder why there’s so much skepticism surrounding the Common Core initiative in the first place.

10/30/13 1:15pm
10/30/2013 1:15 PM
FILE PHOTO

FILE PHOTO

Updated (Nov. 1): The state education department has changed the date of its first meeting to Nov. 12. The revision has been added to our original story below.

The office of New York State education commissioner John King announced on Wednesday that it will be holding a forum in Riverhead – one of two meetings being held in Suffolk County – to discuss the Common Core State Standards Initiative and state testing.

Riverhead Superintendent Nancy Carney said the district’s high school auditorium is still undergoing renovations, but the space will be ready Tuesday, Nov. 5.

“We’re happy to host here,” she said. The meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, Nov. 26, from 6 to 8 p.m.

Mr. King’s announcement came a few weeks after he was criticized for canceling some previously scheduled meetings, including the only event that had been scheduled for Long Island.

He said the public meetings were being “co-opted by special interests whose stated goal was to ‘dominate’ the questions and manipulate the forum.”

The commissioner has scheduled several public meetings with the state’s Board of Regents across New York.

State Department of Education officials said there will be four forums on Long Island. The date of the first Suffolk meeting will be held on Nov. 12 at Ward Melville High School in E. Setauket, from 7 to 9 p.m.

The events will be moderated by state legislators and held in school auditoriums, state officials said. The meetings will be open to the public, however attendance will be limited to a first-come, first-serve basis.

Ms. Carney said although she disagrees with the state’s “fast and furious” approach to its new direction in education, she’s pleased Mr. King has discussed easing student testing requirements, especially with English as a Second Language students and students with disabilities.

“If you’re testing ESL students with the same test and they’ve only been in the country for a year, it’s not really assessing their ability,” she said. “We all embrace that education is changing and we have to change as well. We just want to be sure the change is good change and make sure we do things thoughtfully and carefully in a way that is meaningful and beneficial to our students.”

In an Oct. 24 letter addressed to New York schools, Mr. King said he believes the state’s new direction is the best way to ensure students are college and career ready upon graduating from high school.

“We all know learning rigorous content and taking rigorous assessments can be challenging for students,” he said. “The best way to prevent those challenges from turning into stress for our students is for the adults in their lives to be supportive and affirming.”

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10/21/13 9:00am
10/21/2013 9:00 AM
COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY PRESS PHOTO | New York State Education Department commissioner John King.

COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY PRESS PHOTO | New York State Education Department commissioner John King.

One week after being criticized for canceling his only forum to discuss Common Core curriculum and state testing on Long Island, the state’s chief of schools has announced a new series of forums on the topic.

New York State education commissioner John King announced Friday that he will partner with the state’s Board of Regents to host a dozen forums across New York State, including four on Long Island. While the exact date and location of the events have not yet been announced, the Department of Education has said two of the events will be held in Suffolk County and two more in Nassau.

“I want to have a respectful, direct, and constructive dialogue with parents,” Mr. King said in a press release. “More and smaller discussions will make sure there’s a real opportunity for parents to be heard. This is just the first round; we’ll continue to schedule forums for parents. We want these to be regular events. We want the conversation to rise above all the noise and make sure parents understand the Common Core, and, just as important, we want to understand parents’ concerns. We all share the same goal: to make sure our students have the skills and knowledge to be successful in a changing world.”

The events will be moderated by state legislators and held in school auditoriums. Regents are expected to attend, the press release states.

Mr. King said the forums will be scheduled over the next six weeks; details for all the events will be finalized early next week. So far details have only been announced for the first forum, which will be held Thursday evening in the Albany City School District.

Additionally, four forums will be recorded in front of a studio audience and broadcast on Public Broadcasting Stations across the state, according to the release.

Mr. King had been under scrutiny this week following the suspension of four Common Core forums sponsored by the New York State PTA. The PTA announced the suspension of the forums in a message on its website and Facebook page.

“While our goal was to provide an opportunity to learn and share, based on review of the initial October 10 meeting, the Commissioner concluded the outcome was not constructive for those taking the time to attend,” the PTA’s Facebook announcement read.

The commissioner said in a statement that the first two forums on the topic — held in Poughkeepsie and upstate Whitesboro — had been “co-opted by special interests whose stated goal was to ‘dominate’ the questions and manipulate the forum.”

“The disruptions caused by the ‘special interests’ have deprived parents of the opportunity to listen, ask questions and offer comments,” his statement continued.

The commissioner’s statement and the cancellations were met with sharp criticism from parents, educators and media outlets across the state.

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10/17/13 9:00am
10/17/2013 9:00 AM

Testing1

Thousands of frustrated parents and educators from across Long Island were expected to attend a forum at Garden City High School Tuesday night for an opportunity to speak with New York State Education Commissioner John King about Common Core curriculum and state testing.

Then the meeting was postponed.

The New York State PTA, which was to sponsor the event — one of a series of forums across the state — announced on its website Saturday that the event and three similar forums had been postponed indefinitely at the request of the commissioner’s office.

It was bad enough that only one forum was scheduled for Long Island on this very important topic — more than an hour from the North Fork, no less. Now it appears the discussion won’t happen at all.

Considering the concerns of parents and teachers across the state, we’d expect Mr. King to schedule more forums on the topic of Common Core, not suspend the few he had already scheduled.

The commissioner said in a statement this week that the first two forums on the topic — held in Poughkeepsie and upstate Whitesboro — had been “co-opted by special interests whose stated goal was to ‘dominate’ the questions and manipulate the forum.”

“The disruptions caused by the ‘special interests’ have deprived parents of the opportunity to listen, ask questions and offer comments,” his statement continued.

But news coverage of those two forums indicated that most speakers — who were granted just two minutes apiece after the commissioner had spoken for more than an hour — were teachers and parents. Aren’t those the very people Mr. King should be hearing from?

Since it appears the forums have only been postponed and not yet canceled for good, there’s still time for Mr. King to change his mind and carry on with the program. We hope he does, because the commissioner should be hearing more of what the public has to say, not less.