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Tripping on city’s spring break, state moves test dates earlier

Two years after sending state tests to the end of the school year, the state is moving them earlier again, but its motives for doing so – to move forward on teacher evaluation plans – hit a road block today.

The 2011-2012 school year testing schedule published by the State Education Department this week has state tests for students in grades 3 through 8 starting April 16 and being graded by May 3. Last year, the tests began May 3, and scoring didn’t end until May 26.

The new dates might not be set in stone, because April 16 is the first day that students in New York City and many other school districts return from spring break. But the test scores will definitely be available earlier next year, state officials promised.

The earlier timing is necessary for state to put new teacher evaluation requirements in place, Commissioner of Education John King told district superintendents in a letter, sent Monday, that implored them not to be distracted by policy debates. The evaluation plan sets at least 20 percent of a teacher’s rating to be based on student test scores, but local districts still need to negotiate with unions if it wants more, according to a court ruling today.

Two years ago, the state moved test dates from January and March until May in part to make it possible to attribute a student’s performance to his teacher that year. A side effect is that scores came out later — this year, not until mid-August. That timeline meant that had the evaluation plan been online, teacher ratings couldn’t have been completed. It also meant that for the second straight year, the city had to send students to summer school based on predicted scores, which were sometimes wrong.

“Next year’s results should be available for placement and planning purposes prior to the end of the school year,” said Jane Briggs, an SED spokeswoman.

King also offered one hint of the discussions taking place inside a working group on test integrity that he convened this summer. He said that districts will no longer have a choice of dates on which to administer exams and will all have to begin tests on the first day of the testing period, which city officials said was already the city’s practice.

“As we move forward to implement the Regents’ reforms, the education debate has, at times, reached a fevered pitch. There is value in that debate,” King wrote. “But as we move forward, our students need every ounce of commitment to help them build a better future. The debate over reform should not detract from that commitment.”