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State's plan to move ELA and math tests to May upsets schools

Beginning next year, state math and reading tests will be given in May, rather than two months apart in January and March, the state decided earlier this week. But beyond the barest outline of the schedule, details about the change are still unclear.

Details up in the air include when exactly the tests will be given and how results will be tabulated in time for the start of the next school year. “Work is now underway to revise current examination calendars and scoring timelines,” State Education Department deputy commissioner Johanna Duncan-Poitier said in materials released this week.

The schedule change is throwing schools’ plans for next year into question just as teachers are leaving for the summer. Steven Evangelista, the principal of Harlem Link Charter School, said his teachers have already planned their lessons for all of next year, and finding out that the state tests are moving is forcing them to revise the plans.

“At this late date, when we have already mapped out our entire curriculum and assessment calendar for 2009-10, changing the date of high-stakes tests throws a monkey wrench in our plans,” Evangelista said, adding that he wondered whether getting results over the summer would give teachers enough time to use the data to inform their instruction. He said he hadn’t heard about the Regents’ debate before this week.

In the past, some schools have focused more heavily on reading before the state test in January, then shifted their focus to math in the months before the March math test. Some schools also plan different kinds of lessons for after the state tests, when the pressure to prepare students for the exams has lifted.

Even schools that shun explicit test prep, including Evangelista’s, say the schedule change could pose problems for them.

The calendar change represents rapid-fire action for the Board of Regents, the body that sets school policy in the state. The Regents surveyed teachers, parents, and administrators about the testing schedule in February, weighed the results in March, and made its decision in June. Originally, the Regents indicated that the change would not go into effect until the 2010-2011 school year, but the decision made this week is moving tests that are less than a year away.

The city’s education department supported changing the test schedule, Chief Accountability Officer James Liebman said at a meeting of the city school board on Tuesday, where Schools Chancellor Joel Klein announced the Regents’ decision. But Liebman said the city had urged the state to space the two exams out.

That position was similar to the one taken by most of the people who responded to the Regents’ survey earlier this spring. More than 80 percent of those surveyed said the tests should be moved later in the year, but 70 percent of them thought the tests should be separated by one or more months.

Another concern is a new federal requirement that asks officials to speed up the process of evaluating schools’ accountability status. But Duncan-Poitier said this week that an advantage of the May test date is that the state will be able to meet that requirement.

The change in testing could also affect the city’s school evaluation system. Progress report cards for schools are based largely on the proportion of students who show a year’s worth of progress in one year on state tests. If the tests are given more than a year apart next year, the city will likely recalibrate some of its calculations, although the underlying formula used to devise the city’s progress reports will not change, said a Department of Education spokesman, Andrew Jacob.

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