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Fariña assures critics of the state English exams: I hear you

Patrick Wall

Last week, educators and parents at some of the city’s top-performing public schools took to the streets and sidewalks to protest this year’s state English exams. The previous week, hundreds of other parents refused to let their children take the tests.

On Wednesday, schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said she got the message.

“I want you to know that I am listening to their concerns,” she said in speech hosted by St. John’s University School of Education.

In a nod to the nearly 40 Manhattan principals who helped organize Friday’s rallies, Fariña promised to convene a group of principals to recommend improvements to the state tests. She added that the department would relay schools’ complaints about the tests — which she said focused especially on the third grade exams — back to the state.

“We’re in constant dialogue with the state education department,” she said, “and we will share these concerns with them.”

Fariña’s remarks contrasted sharply with ones that New York State Education Commissioner John King made last week when he forcefully defended the exams. They also differed slightly from comments Fariña made during the tests, when she suggested that parents who believe their children are “ready for the challenge” allow them to take the tests, rather than opt out — a subtle jab that offended some parents who boycotted the exams.

Last week, Fariña addressed concerns about how the tests are used when she announced that test scores will no longer be the main factor in determining whether students are promoted to the next grade.

The anti-exam rallies that helped prompt Fariña’s latest testing remarks were coordinated by school leaders in Manhattan’s District 2, where Fariña was once a principal, and in Brooklyn’s District 15, where she was a teacher and superintendent. She has deep ties with some of the protesting principals.

The principals, echoing other educators’ complaints, said the tests last too long, contain overly difficult reading passages and confusing questions, and fail to assess the deeper comprehension work called for by the Common Core standards. Fariña did not respond to those criticisms on Wednesday, other than to say that most of this year’s tests contained 14 fewer questions than last year’s tests.

The chancellor made a few other small announcements yesterday during the mostly unscripted speech.

She said the department will soon launch a “big drive” to recruit more school guidance counselors, which she had previously listed as a priority.

She described a new after-school program called “Teen Thursdays,” where middle school students will visit some 40 participating cultural institutions to learn about American history by studying art and artifacts. That program will help them prepare for new social studies standards, she added.

She also recounted a conversation she had this week with the new chief of the city’s Department of Homeless Services, who told her that some 22,000 children sleep in homeless shelters, but that none of those shelters contain libraries. She vowed Wednesday to try to get books into those more than 150 family shelters.

“This is something that we as a city should not let go by,” she said.

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