VCSD grateful for a pause

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

Happy children: Students in grades three through five relieve the stress of the workday by stretching on mats at the Voorheesville Elementary School last spring during one of eight after-school sessions led by yoga instructor Douglas Goodbee. A recent task force report highlighted student stress in the wake of added testing.

NEW SCOTLAND — Voorheesville school district officials are happy to have a pause in the tensions among teachers, students, parents, and school districts statewide caused for the past three years by controversial Common Core Standards and curriculum.

Last week, the New York Common Core Task Force issued its final report on 1,500 Common Core standards and made new recommendations — including delaying linking teacher evaluations to student test scores and providing age-appropriate materials to students — on how to put a new system in place.

“I am excited that the task force has listened to the concerns of educators, students and parents,” said Karen Conroy, the director of curriculum at Voorheesville, in an email to The Enterprise. “Some of the recommendations that I see as being very significant are providing flexibility for assessments for students with disabilities... and English language learners, transparency and educator involvement with the standards and the assessments,...[and] modifying the standards for early grade levels to be more age appropriate.”

“This is going to allow everyone to take a good look at everything,” Voorheesville Superintendent Brian Hunt told The Enterprise. “Taking the time to do things right is important. Slowing the process down and doing it right is the best thing for teachers and students.”

According to the task force report, “There were significant issues with the roll-out and implementation of the Common Core Standards causing parents, educators, and other stakeholders to lose trust in the system.

The state’s original process to adopt the more than 1,500 Common Core Standards failed to include meaningful input by educators and was not done in a sufficiently open and transparent manner.”

Parents statewide refused in large numbers to allow their children to participate in state testing once Common Core began; in Voorheesville this spring, 97 students — about 18 percent of classes being tested — opted out of the exams.

Teachers also protested the system that linked student performance on exams with little input from educators to employment evaluations. The new recommendations suggest that the revamped Common Core approach could still be linked to teacher evaluations after a delay of four years, through the 2019-20 school year.

On Tuesday, the Board of Regents voted to uncouple testing from teacher evaluation immediately in a four-year moratorium.

The changes come just days after President Barack Obama signed The Every Student Succeeds Act on Dec. 10.

“They are in the process of getting details — we don’t have all the details,” Hunt said. “I'm still concerned with the overemphasis of test scores and teacher evaluations. I just want to have a fair evaluation system.”

Hunt said that the evaluation portion of the current standards is “skewed.”

“Only some teachers have test scores involved in evaluations,” he said. Music teachers, for example, are exempt from performance links to test scores based on English language arts or math.

“A pause is better than just pushing forward,” Hunt said. “It gives us all a chance to look things over. It won’t distort the process further for teachers or students.”

The task force recommended that new, sample curricula allow time to be modified by the state's 700 local school districts and 200,000 teachers in order to ease the transition to updated standards, the report says. The process would ensure that local educators have the flexibility to tailor instruction to the needs of their students, the report says. Time for training educators on new standards is also recommended.

“The task force believes in high-quality education standards and accountability in education, but the current system needs to be overhauled,” the report says. “In order to finally get the system right, there must be adequate time to implement the system.”

Included in the report are anecdotes from teachers and parents who suggested that the time limit on the exams caused student anxiety. A third-grade teacher from Brooklyn, the report says, suggested that the time limits have undermined the teaching of the Common Core, as the Common Core teaches students to engage deeply with a text, but the students are tested on quick test reading.           

Conroy wrote in her email that, in 2016-17, some questions provided by the former vendor, Pearson, would still appear on state tests, but that there would be a full rewriting by teachers; in 2017-18, New York state-certified teachers would do the writing from scratch and a new vendor would facilitate the process.

Conroy was especially pleased with the final recommendation to unlink scores from teacher evaluations, she wrote.

“This is the way it should have been done in the first place,” she said of the task force's recommendations. “I hope that these reforms, and those coming from the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), will give teachers the chance to exhale from the pressure they have been under and to feel more supported. Even with all the negativity that has surrounded the testing, the high rigor of the standards, and the lack of resources and training, our teachers have never stopped working to provide the best quality education they can for their students.”

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