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State Commissioner MaryEllen Elia

State Commissioner MaryEllen Elia

Push to overhaul tests in New York hits a persistent roadblock: cost

Education officials in New York are rethinking their plans to overhaul the state’s tests after realizing that they would have to fund the changes on their own.

Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and the Board of Regents have said they are interested in experimenting with project-based assessments, which would mark a bold departure from the state’s current system of testing. Project-based assessments ask students to complete a series of tasks instead of answering traditional multiple-choice or short-answer questions.

The state wanted to develop the trial tests through a provision in the new federal education law that allows seven states to experiment with new exams at a time when criticism of traditional tests is at a high. But state officials did not realize, until recently, that the provision comes without funding.

That could be a deal-breaker for New York since developing tests is an “extremely expensive option,” Elia said.

“There is no money with it, which means that since [the state education department] does not have the money to be able to do that, then without a special allocation, we wouldn’t be able to move forward on being one of those innovative states,” she said.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education confirmed that the pilot does not come with funding because Congress had not approved extra spending. But she said states could reallocate their existing federal funds to support changes to testing.

The realization comes as many advocates call for wide-ranging changes to tests, not just small tweaks. The state’s testing boycott movement, one of the loudest opposition groups, is already disappointed in what its leaders consider meager changes to state tests this year. Other advocates argue that performance-based assessments allow students with disabilities, and others who are traditionally poor test takers, to showcase their talents in a different way.

Elia left the door open to find other funding. But her comments signaled that creating performance-based assessments is now an uphill battle. That is likely to disappoint many advocates of a testing overhaul, including several Regents who have made it a priority to speak out in favor of project-based tests.

Regent Kathleen Cashin has been a vocal supporter of trying out performance-based tests. At Monday’s meeting, she said that type of assessment — which is already in use at a handful of schools in the New York Performance Standards Consortium — can reflect the learning she wants to see in the classroom.

That’s an argument that schools in the consortium have long been making as they have lobbied for the right to add more members and see their model spread more widely.

“I feel like now is our moment, because there is so much dissatisfaction about standardized testing,” John Antush, a teacher at New York City’s City-As-School, said in 2014. “I think the world is on our side.”