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Parents at a rally protest Common Core. File photo by Erika Karp

By Andrea Paldy

After six years of controversy surrounding the adoption and implementation of Common Core and standardized tests associated with it, the New York State Education Department released a new draft of learning standards Sept. 21.

The proposed changes come as the department attempts to respond to ongoing criticism, while maintaining its stated goal of rigor and higher standards for students. The result could mean significant change to both English language arts (ELA) and math learning standards and a greater emphasis on communication with parents, students and educators.

Kevin Scanlon, assistant superintendent for educational services for Three Village said it’s too early to tell whether any of the changes will be fully implemented.

“So far it just seems to be cosmetic pieces,” Scanlon said at the meeting. “However, we need to delve a little further into it to see what potential impact it may have.”

He also said Three Village is providing feedback on the possible changes and will continue to work with the SED.

In a press release announcing the proposed adjustments, the state’s education department said its aim is to ensure that the new standards and their implementation are age-appropriate, particularly in primary grades. The new guidelines also propose additional teacher resources, guidance and professional development.

“These changes reflect what I have heard from parents, teachers and administrators over the past year in my travels across the state,” Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said in a prepared statement.

The draft committees, made up of more than 130 teachers, administrators, parents and college educators, volunteered from all regions of the state. They represent the “Big Five” districts — New York City, Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Yonkers — as well as urban, suburban and rural districts throughout the state, Elia said. These committees are suggesting that glossaries be used to explain the value and expectations of the education department’s learning standards to all stakeholders.

The ELA draft includes a preface and introduction describing the learning standard’s role within a curriculum. The committee, which worked with a child development expert, proposes more emphasis on the importance of play-based learning in the primary grades. The ELA draft revisions also seek to streamline literary and nonfiction texts across grades, while reorganizing writing standards.

According to the draft document, math standards will be revised to clarify expectations “without limiting instructional flexibility.” Math committees also recommended clarifications to “better understand the goals of the learning standards, Elia said. The revisions seek to “define the progression of skills,” so that there is continuity and a connection from grade to grade. Other changes include creating a balance between skill comprehension, application and performance.

The recommendations of committee members — described by Elia as “dedicated” — are built, in part, on those of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) Common Core Task Force Report published in December, a public survey and feedback from discussions the commissioner had with parents and educators across the state.

The committees also worked with special education and English language teachers to address criticisms that the standards are not suitable for students in those areas.

Parents and others can comment on the draft standards on the department’s website — www.nysed.gov/aimhighny — through Nov. 4.

Northport-East Northport Superintendent Robert Banzer. Photo by Victoria Espinoza

Northport-East Northport Superintendent Robert Banzer updated the school board and audience members about the changes in Common Core Learning Standards at a meeting last week.

The Oct. 22 presentation covered upcoming state assessment changes and teacher and principal annual professional performance reviews (APPR) shifts.

According to Banzer’s presentation, as far as learning standards go, the English language arts and math common core standards have been adopted and implemented, the social studies standards have been adopted but not implemented and the science standards are only under review and have not yet been adopted or implemented.   

Several shifts are happening in the ELA and literacy, social studies and mathematic standards. The shifts in ELA and literacy are mostly focused on having students engage with the text more.

Students will have a “true balance of informational and literary texts,” according to the presentation and students will build knowledge about the world “through text rather than the teacher.”

The math changes include striking a balance between practicing and understanding math skills in the classroom.

“Both are occurring with intensity,” according to the presentation. There is also an emphasis on students “deeply understanding” math concepts. “They learn more than the trick to get the answer right. They learn the math.”

New social studies standards mirror those in ELA and literacy.

These include using informational text to support an argument to help students “develop the skills necessary for 21st century college, career and citizenship standards.”

In June 2018, a new global history and geography exam will be administered based on the new framework, and in June 2019 a new US history and government exam will follow.

For science standards, a steering committee was formed in August 2014 and a public survey is currently being developed to gather feedback on a new set of science learning standards for grades pre-kindergarten to 12. Adoption of a five-year strategic plan is anticipated in 2016.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has created a Common Core task force amid growing boycotts of standardized tests.

According to the governor’s website, the task force is a diverse and highly qualified group of education officials, teachers, parents and state representatives from across New York. The group will complete a review and deliver its final recommendations by the end of this year.

There are also changes to assessments, including a greater input from teachers in the test development process.

In grades three through eight, ELA tests will have fewer questions in 2015-2016. Computer based testing will also be field-tested.

Changes to APPR are also on the way.

A new education law requires districts to negotiate new annual professional performance review criteria by Nov. 15, unless the district applies for and receives a hardship waiver, which would extend its deadline.

Banzer said that Northport-East Northport has applied for and received its hardship waiver just last week. The waiver is for four months and a district can apply again for another extension, according to the presentation.

“Knowing from May to November, for many districts, to negotiate would be impossible or impractical to try,” Banzer said. “We bought ourselves some much needed time with this process.”

A full-day kindergarten class at Mount Sinai Elementary school has rug time during class. Photo by Giselle Barkley

With the Mount Sinai Elementary School’s new full-day kindergarten program, most students don’t want to miss school, even if they’re sick.

Since classes began six weeks ago, the school district’s kindergarten classes have learned to read, construct simple sentences, understand patterns and count when doing math. Six weeks ago, the majority of these students didn’t even know how to spell or identify “the” or “and” in a sentence.

Faculty and staff members, like Superintendent Gordon Brosdal and teacher Debra Santoro, who started teaching 10 years ago, said they thought the students would take longer to grasp the concepts the school teaches in the full-day program, but the shift from half-day to full-day Kindergarten has been successful, according to the school’s employees.

With the help of teachers like Santoro and the school’s new writing program, “Think, Draw, Write,” the kids aren’t only gaining confidence in their writing abilities, but are also using their creativity and applying what they learn to events in their life. During class, the kids have rug time, which is when the teacher devotes a certain amount of time teaching a lesson related to English language arts or math, among other subjects, at the front of the class. Students can then return to their desks and expand upon what they learned on the rug. Now, lessons are hands-on, allowing the kids to have a more positive outlook on learning.

“I think, in the past, we didn’t have it structured with mini lesson that’s presented in a few minutes to really grab their attention [and] convince [students] that they’re capable, and to build confidence,” Santoro said.

With the half-day kindergarten program, teachers only had 90 to 100 minutes of instruction time, as opposed to the scheduled 120 — walking from the bus to the classroom and taking off warmer clothing during the winter months took time out of the lesson. The new program gives students and teachers more time to learn and teach a lesson, Brosdal said.

“You don’t want to do it just because [the] parents both work and might need child care,” Brosdal said. “The reality is … when you look at the demands of the curriculum of ELA and math, you have to have time to learn it. When you’re rushing, it’s easy for some [children] to get left behind.”

The program also allows kids to get out of the classroom for special classes, like music, art and physical education, and learn the layout of the school and how to stay attentive despite the additional hours.

Initially, first grade teachers at the school spent the first four to six weeks teaching the kids how to get around the building as well as how to sit for a longer period of time — first grade used to be the first time former kindergarten students stayed in school for a full day.

According to Santoro, the key to preventing these students from fading as the day progresses is to keep them engaged.

Brosdal added that school officials intend to follow the progress of this group of kindergartners, especially when they enter third grade and complete their assessments for Common Core. Thus far, faculty, staff and students alike are excited about the program and the kids’ progress. Brosdal admitted he thought the change from half-day to full-day would be more difficult, but said that teachers sacrificing parts of their summer to prepare for the program by scheduling meetings with superintendents from school districts with full-day kindergarten, like Miller Place, was helpful.

“[With] new programs, sometimes you find that ‘oh you should have planned that or did that,’” Brosdal said. “[School] opened like we had [full-day kindergarten] for years.”

Kevin Scanlon, assistant superintendent for educational services, delivers a presentation. Photo by Andrea Moore Paldy

Enrollment in the Three Village school district has hit a historic low.

That’s some of the news Kevin Scanlon, assistant superintendent for educational services, delivered at the district’s second school board meeting in the new school year. His numerical snapshot of the district also included state assessment and Regents scores, as well as statistics for the Class of 2015.

Kevin Scanlon, assistant superintendent for educational services, delivers a presentation. Photo by Andrea Moore Paldy
Kevin Scanlon, assistant superintendent for educational services, delivers a presentation. Photo by Andrea Moore Paldy

Enrollment, Scanlon said, has been declining steadily by about 200 students each year. Current enrollment is 6,472 compared to 6,723 last school year. With 348 students, this year’s kindergarten is little more than half the size of last year’s graduating class, he said.

Scanlon said, though, that the district is taking advantage of declining enrollment to decrease class sizes in elementary grades and reduce study halls in the secondary schools. In an interview following the meeting, the assistant superintendent added that Three Village has been able to appoint a STEM teacher at each of the elementary schools.

Even as student numbers go down, the poverty rate has climbed a percentage point to 7 percent. Scanlon’s report also indicated that district spending per student has increased from $16,137 to $17,554.

On a more controversial matter, Scanlon reported that the refusal rate in this year’s state tests for third- through eighth-grade students was 58 percent for English language arts and 57 percent for math.

Of those who opted out of ELA this year, 48 percent had passed it in 2014. Those who opted out of math this year and took it in 2014 had a 59 percent pass rate last year.

Though the Three Village 2015 ELA results reflect only 42 percent of students in the testing grades, the pass rate jumped in all grades, increasing between 4.15 and 12.7 percentage points, a comparison of the two years shows. The highest pass rate was 61.9 percent in eighth grade.

The passing rate on the math exams, which reflected 43 percent of students in the grades tested, also saw gains. Fourth grade had the largest increase — 11.16 percentage points — and a 77.2 percent pass rate.

Scanlon said that there was a 3.93 percentage point drop in the eighth-grade math results because the majority of eighth-graders took the Algebra Regents exams instead of the eighth-grade state test.

The 2015 assessment and Regents report showed that all scores in both disciplines were well above the New York state, Long Island, Nassau County and Suffolk County averages. New York state averages for all students were 31.3 percent for ELA and 38.1 percent for math.

When compared to neighboring districts — Commack, Half Hollow Hills, Hauppauge, Northport and Smithtown — Three Village’s ELA scores surpassed other districts in all grades except seventh. Seventh-grade scores were only 0.1 percentage point lower than the second highest-scoring district. Three Village’s math scores were either first or second in all grades, except for eighth.

Algebra students took both the old integrated algebra and the Common Core-aligned Algebra I exams. Scanlon said the higher of the two scores will be used on transcripts. The report showed that except for geometry, there was a dip in the math Regents scores. Pass rates remained high — in the 90s — for science, history and social studies Regents.

In other good news, the class of 2015 maintained the district’s 99 percent graduation rate and had a 95 percent college acceptance rate. This year also saw the highest number of Advanced Placement scholars ever, Scanlon said. The 293 students received the honor based on the number of AP exams they took and their average score, he explained. This number includes current students, as well as those who graduated last June.

In other news, the board voted on two new administrative appointments: Anthony Pollera, who has been a music teacher with the district since 2002, was named coordinating chairperson of music; and Marnie Kula, Ward Melville science chair since 2008, added InSTAR program coordinator to her responsibilities following the retirement of George Baldo.

A sign at Congressman Lee Zeldin’s press conference in Comsewogue on Sunday, April 12, speaks against standardized testing. Photo by Victoria Espinoza

Congressman Lee Zeldin announced to Comsewogue teachers, parents and students on Sunday that he is working on a way to reduce state testing, amid a renewed local push against the standardized exams.

The Student Testing Improvement and Accountability Act, which Zeldin (R-Shirley) is co-sponsoring, has “strong bipartisan support,” he told the crowd at Comsewogue High School. “This legislation would roll back state-mandated testing to pre-No Child Left Behind levels.”

Congressman Lee Zeldin talks about a bill that would reduce standardized testing during an event in Comsewogue on Sunday, April 12, as Superintendent Joe Rella looks on. Photo by Victoria Espinoza
Congressman Lee Zeldin talks about a bill that would reduce standardized testing during an event in Comsewogue on Sunday, April 12, as Superintendent Joe Rella looks on. Photo by Victoria Espinoza

The federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 required states to create assessments for basic skills in select grade levels. Before the controversial No Child Left Behind, New York State students were tested in both English language arts and math in three different grades, for six total tests. Now students take those exams each year in grades three through eight.

The Student Testing Improvement and Accountability Act aims to reduce the number of tests to previous levels — so they would be administered once in grades three to five, once in grades six through nine and once in grades 10 through 12 — based on the belief that it would allow for more curriculum flexibility, giving students more time to learn and helping to nurture their creativity.

Gina Rennard, a Comsewogue parent and wife of school board trustee Rick Rennard, has had her children “opt out” of the standardized tests, something many parents have done in opposition to the Common Core Learning Standards and linked state tests.

“These tests are developmentally inappropriate,” Gina Rennard said. “The grades for these tests come out after the students have already gone onto the next education level, therefore the tests have no bearing on their education plan. So why are we torturing them?”

Superintendent Joe Rella hosted the press conference, and said the only goal of testing is “to put public schools out of business and have [charter schools] for profit, because there is nothing about improvement here.”

Rella said he will not stop fighting for change.

The gathering came just a couple of weeks after Rella and Comsewogue school board members considered a proposal to refuse to administer state exams unless the state delivered more education aid and reduced the weight of student test scores on teacher and administrator evaluations. But after the idea created buzz in the community, the officials nixed the proposal on the advice of legal counsel.

Comsewogue Superintendent Joe Rella speaks against standardized testing during an event with Congressman Lee Zeldin on Sunday, April 12. Photo by Victoria Espinoza
Comsewogue Superintendent Joe Rella speaks against standardized testing during an event with Congressman Lee Zeldin on Sunday, April 12. Photo by Victoria Espinoza

State Education Law gives the education commissioner power to remove school officials from office if they willfully disobey rules or regulations, and withhold state aid from schools where such action takes place.

Patchogue-Medford Superintendent Michael Hynes said at the event that the pressure on both students and teachers is far too intense.

“If you look at countries whose education systems are performing well, they are doing the opposite of what we’re doing right now,” Hynes said. The crowd roared in agreement.

Jennifer Jenkins moved her family to Comsewogue because of the schools, but said she is no longer confident in the education her kids are getting.

“To have so much of the curriculum based on the testing forces the teachers to focus on standardized testing as a part of the year’s goal,” she said. “Then the teachers have less of an opportunity to build their own curriculum around what’s best for their individual students.”

Zeldin said he is optimistic about the bill’s future in Congress.

“This is where you hold your elected officials accountable, and we will make sure we are doing everything within our power up in Albany and down in Washington to do it on behalf of these kids.”

Joe Rella is planning to continue as Comsewogue’s superintendent for the immediate future, though he says he’s retiring in 2019. Photo by Barbara Donlon

Comsewogue officials have sealed their lips on a proposal not to give state exams to students next month.

Both Facebook and the Port Jefferson Station Teachers Association website were buzzing this week, as school board members and residents discussed a proposed resolution saying the board would “seriously consider not administering the New York State standardized [English language arts] and math exams in grades 3-8, and the science exam in grades 4 and 8.” The board of education had encouraged parents to attend its workshop on Thursday night and speak about the state’s testing system.

But just hours before the meeting, the district went silent, and Superintendent Joe Rella and board members said legal counsel had advised them not to discuss the issue.

It is unclear whether the board will bring the resolution to a vote at its next business meeting, on Monday.

According to the resolution, the board takes issue with the state’s current education aid levels and teacher evaluation policies, and with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposed education reforms, one of which would base half of a teacher’s evaluation on student test scores.

The resolution says that the Comsewogue school board would consider not administering the state tests unless Cuomo (D) and state legislators “establish a fair and equitable state aid funding formula … so [schools] can provide for the educational needs of every child” and stop weighing student test scores so heavily in teacher and administrator evaluations.

At the workshop Thursday, a community member said the announcement before the meeting that officials would no longer discuss the matter had surprised her.

“I really can’t tell you why right now,” Rella responded. “We’ve been advised not to comment about it.”

According to state education department spokeswoman Jeanne Beattie, the federal government requires the standardized tests.

“If a member of a board of education or school superintendent takes official action by refusing to administer a required state assessment, the responsible party would be at risk of removal from office by the commissioner of education pursuant to Education Law,” Beattie said in an email.

According to Article 7 of the state Education Law, the commissioner may, following a hearing, remove a school officer, including a school board member or a district administrator, if it has been “proved to his satisfaction” that the person willfully disobeyed “any decision, order, rule or regulation of the regents or of the commissioner of education.” The commissioner may also withhold state aid from any district for such actions.