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New York looks to tweak rollout of Common Core English Regents exam

Teach Marisa Laks, center, works with students in 2014 ahead of a Regents exam the following week.
Teach Marisa Laks, center, works with students in 2014 ahead of a Regents exam the following week.
Patrick Wall

High school seniors who failed the English Regents exam last year would get two more cracks at an older — and easier — version under a proposal to be voted on this week.

The change would revive an exam that the state phased out in August in order to help students caught between the state’s rising academic standards and the requirements for a high school diploma. If approved, it would be the second time in two years that officials have hit the brakes on their plans to implement Common Core English exams in high school.

The proposal, which needs approval from the Board of Regents, illustrates the ongoing challenges surrounding New York’s efforts to introduce the Common Core learning standards into classrooms. The new, more rigorous English language arts exam contains more reading passages and requires more writing than the old exam. Meanwhile, nearly one in five test-takers in the 2013-14 school year didn’t pass the easier test, according to state records.

This year’s juniors will still have to pass the new Common Core exam, and officials say the scoring curve should ensure graduation rates remain relatively stable.

The changes to Regents exams are part of an overall plan to integrate the Common Core into the state’s tests and graduation requirements that stretches until 2022. New York is one of more than 40 states that are adopting the standards as part of national movement to provide students with more critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

Under former Commissioner John King, the state moved faster than others to change its exams for younger students and its teacher evaluations, sparking a years-long backlash from parents and teachers.

At the center of those concerns have been the use of standardized tests, which are required under federal law to be administered to all students in third through eighth grade. Scores from those tests have increasingly been used for measuring students, teachers, and schools, fueling fears that schools have narrowed their curriculum.

The backlash appears to have reached a tipping point over the weekend. A study released Saturday by the Council of Great City Schools surveyed 60 of the nation’s largest school districts and found that students spend an average of between 20 and 25 hours per year taking tests. Coinciding with the report was a mea culpa of sorts from the Obama administration, which intensified many of the federal testing requirements first introduced by former President George W. Bush.

“In moderation, I believe that smart, strategic tests can help us measure our students’ progress in school,” President Obama said in a video posted to the White House’s Facebook page Saturday.

“But I also hear from parents who rightly worry about too much testing and from parents who feel so much pressure to teach to a test that it takes the joy out of teaching and learning,” Obama said. “I want to fix that.”

The administration released an “action plan” to encourage states and districts to minimize the amount of time that their students spend taking tests. Many of the outlined changes, such as capping the amount of time spent taking tests to 2 percent of the school year and eliminating “double-testing” have already been adopted in New York.

The Obama administration did not say it was backing away from its support for using standardized tests to evaluate teachers and schools, nor did it indicate that officials would work to nix the current requirements for annual testing.

State officials used the announcement as an opportunity to tout the changes that they have already made in New York.

“I agree with President Obama and Secretary Duncan that we must reverse the overemphasis on testing that has become the norm in too many of our schools, and that is exactly what we have been doing in New York,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a statement.

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