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Responding to opt-out movement, New York officials say state tests will be shorter

New York state tests given this school year will have fewer questions, state education officials said Wednesday.

Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said testmakers will remove reading and writing passages from the English tests given to third through eighth graders this year, and remove multiple-choice questions from the math tests. The changes are meant to address concerns of parents who are keeping their children from taking state tests, she said.

“One of the things that’s been a constant comment is that the assessments are long,” Elia told members of the Board of Regents on Wednesday.

Elia began as commissioner in July, and one of her top priorities has been to figure out a way to quell an opt-out movement that grew dramatically in New York state over the last school year, though less so in New York City. About one in five eligible students statewide did not take last year’s state tests, with families citing a range of concerns about test prep and teacher evaluations.

That has left Elia to try to assuage those concerns while maintaining the tests required by federal law and the Common Core standards that underpin the exams, which she strongly supports and which state officials say are necessary to continue improving education statewide.

In addition to reducing the number of test questions, Elia said the state is also moving to release all of the exam questions to the public, addressing another major complaint. The state has typically only released a portion of the test questions, and only after the school year is over, frustrating educators.

Elia said that questions would be released “as early as possible” next year, but stopped short of making promises about the timing.

“I will tell you that I don’t think, as an educator, that it’s ever early enough,” Elia said.

Elia said that a decision has not been made about how many questions would be removed from this year’s tests, and it was unclear whether the reductions would reduce the time students spend testing. Last year, the English tests took between three-and-a-half and four-and-a-half hours over three days, and the math tests ranged from just more than three hours to more than four hours over three days.

The tests the state will give next spring will be the last set of exams designed by Pearson, the controversial testmaker that has produced New York’s tests during the state’s rollout of new Common Core learning standards.

The tests given in 2017 will be designed by Questar, an assessment company that won New York’s main standardized testing contract earlier this year. Questar agreed to offer districts the option to give computer-based tests, which could provide teachers with their students’ results immediately.

On Wednesday, Elia said the Questar contract will enable the state to continue to shrink the tests. More than 290 teachers will be involved in developing and reviewing the assessments, up from 162, she added.