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EDITORIAL: Opting out is strong signal

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WHAT IF THEY GAVE a test and students refused to take it? Kids dream about that. Then last week the dream came true, as parents told public schools around the state that the schools couldn’t give their students the so-called high stakes assessments. Parents have revolted and there’s no telling where that will end.

Signs of discontent have been brewing for years, but last week Ichabod Crane Central School District reported that 68% of its students in grades 3 through 8 were not taking the standardized tests designed to measure student progress in English language arts. The opt-out figure was more than 60% in the Germantown District, 32% in Chatham and lower but still significant at Taconic Hills and Hudson.

Parents traditionally voice complaints about the education to school boards, teachers and administrators. Some families home-school their kids or send them to private schools, if they can afford it. But neither home-schooling nor charter schools fundamentally destabilize public education.

The widespread, spontaneous resistance to standardized assessment tests associated with the Common Core Learning Standards is different. Parents collectively overruled the authority of schools to administer tests required by state and federal agencies. These parents aren’t radical activists. But they have unleashed a populist uprising that has already forced state officials to promise some testing reforms. That’s just the type of halfway measure bound to provoke more anger and suspicion.

Public schools are in a bind. On one hand the schools must answer to a state government hobbled by ineffective educational leadership; on the other hand, ideologues preach mistrust of any education reforms, even ones that prepare students for the world that is, not the one that was.

How do we fix this? In New York State, the place to start is with Governor Andrew Cuomo. He didn’t create this mess, but he did make it a lot worse. He used the popular dissatisfaction with the assessment tests and Common Core Standards to win a political battle with teachers’ unions. His budget uses the assessment tests as the major factor in evaluating teacher performance, making teachers into suspects if the data finds reasons to accuse them. He went too far. By relying so heavily on test data to measure teacher evaluations, parents and teachers have closed ranks, casting the governor as a source of the problem. Only he can change that perception… assuming he wants to.

In this state the governor does not control education policy. The state Board of Regents has that task. But Mr. Cuomo can use powers he does have to take the dramatic steps needed to return the focus in our schools to the job of educating children.

The first step for him should be to immediately propose and then broker a deal to suspend the high stakes testing, a step that should include a halt to the scoring and use of the data from this round of tests.

Next he should persuade the Regents committee already at work on changing the testing regime to recommend a new program for training teachers to use the Common Core curriculum–one that does not require standardized tests until all teachers have had the opportunity to become proficient. Other states have trained their teachers; New York can too.

And when it comes to assessing what students know, why do we rely on 20th century methods to collect data for the 21st century? The companies that peddle these out-of-date testing methods get rich because our state officials don’t have the imagination to demand cheaper, less disruptive and more efficient means of data collection. Companies get rich at the taxpayers’ expense, which might change if state leaders would think more and spend less.

Will Governor Cuomo take the lead in making these changes? He has linked his authority over the unions to these standardized tests, and politicians quickly learn that opponents pounce and the public punishes leaders who appear to act from weakness not strength. That helps explain why humility is in such short supply along the hallways of our state capitol.

But if he possesses political wisdom as well as deal-making muscle, there’s still a brief window for the governor to act. What happened in our schools this week bordered on chaos. It created unlikely alliances, uniting upstate and downstate voters on both sides of the political spectrum concerned about the future of their kids. Any delay in testing reform will trigger new protests, bigger, angrier and ultimately more destructive to public education. And next time it will be all his fault.

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