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Officials reassess state tests in wake of attendance disruptions

ALBANY — As state exams near, education officials are growing increasingly anxious about the large swath of city students whose schooling has been interrupted this year by Hurricane Sandy and the ongoing school bus drivers’ strike.

Speaking to members of the Board of Regents at their monthly meeting today, Chancellor Merryl Tisch said she thought students with disabilities who have not been able to get to school should not have to take the state’s math and reading tests in April.

“I’m not comfortable asking this population to sit for state exams when they have missed chunks of the school year,” said Tisch, who pressed State Education Commissioner John King on the State Education Department’s authority to waive test requirements.

The city is mulling its options about how to use the test results of students with a high number of unavoidable absences, a spokeswoman said today.

One option for the most affected students could include not using their test scores in “high-stakes” ways. Typically, test scores determine whether a student is promoted to the next grade and factor heavily into school progress reports. Under the state’s teacher evaluation law, the scores will also play a significant role in how teachers are rated. But students and schools that were heavily affected by the year’s tumult might be spared the most severe consequences this year.

The end-of-year tests are designed to measure how much students have learned, but this school year was disrupted by two significant events. Schools citywide closed for at least five days after Hurricane Sandy last fall, and thousands of students living in hard-hit areas stayed out of school even longer.

Then, last month, bus drivers walked off the job in a labor dispute with the city, leaving 150,000 students — including 50,000 students with disabilities — without a way to get to school. Attendance rates for students who most rely on buses dropped by as much as 20 percentage points in January, and attendance in high-need special education schools is down 16 percent this month compared to the same time last year. In all, as many as 2,500 special education students haven’t gone to school since the strike started, according Advocates for Children.

City officials rescheduled most of the time missed because of Sandy for next week, which was originally slated to be a break. But a spokeswoman said today that the Department of Education could make additional changes because of the disruptions.

“We are aware of these concerns and plan to decide whether any adjustments are necessary after we have reviewed the data,” said Connie Pankratz, a department spokeswoman.

Many of the students who have missed school because of the bus strike do not have to take state tests because they have severe cognitive disabilities. Those students take the New York State Alternate Assessment, which relies on classroom observations and student work to measure learning.

Some districts have tried to stop high absenteeism from influencing teacher evaluations. Last year, King chastised Buffalo and its teachers union for trying to exclude the performance of chronically absent students from calculations of the value that teachers added to their students. Ultimately, he accepted a plan that lowered some performance goals in schools with many chronically absent students.

In New York City, a union official said a year ago that the city and union shared the belief that teachers should not be held accountable for the performance of chronically absent students. But a union spokesman said today that the role of attendance in teacher evaluations had not been resolved in the current round of negotiations.

Responding to Tisch’s questions, King said students are required under state law to take tests regardless of how much time they missed. He said he would leave it up the city to decide how to use the test scores in its decisions about about teachers, students, or schools.

“The city will have to make the accountability decision ultimately and they will need to adjust those decisions … consistent with their analysis of the situation,” King said.

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