Updated at 9:15 on September 17, 2013:
The district plans to move forward immediately to reduce the number of tests taken by city students, Superintendent Bolgen Vargas said at a press briefing yesterday. The decision requires approval from State Education Commissioner John King, but Vargas said he's confident that King will approve the change. Both Webster and Brockport have taken a similar approach, Vargas said.
The reduction in tests is limited to those created locally; state mandated tests will still be administered. Vargas and Adam Urbanski, president of the Rochester Teachers Association, said the reduction in tests will allow teachers to spend more time teaching. The days devoted to preparing for and administering tests were not only an exercise in redundancy, Urbanski said, but they cut into instruction time.
Urbanski didn’t deny that the reduction came about as a result of the Annual Professional Performance Reviews. Teachers received their reviews only days ago. Urbanski is a strong opponent of the APPR and says he is actively trying to have the law rescinded. The APPR will still use the results of students' state-mandated tests to evaluate a teacher’s effectiveness. And the announced changes will not negate the most recent reviews.
Many parents and teachers are pleased with the decision to reduce tests — some were scheduled to be administered starting next week. And there have been anecdotal reports of teachers receiving reviews based on students they didn’t teach or on test scores for students who didn’t take the tests. They also say that there are better tools to assess student and teacher performance than what's allowed under the APPR.
But some charter school advocates say that the criticism of excessive testing is misguided.
City parents received a letter (below) from Rochester schools Superintendent Bolgen Vargas on Saturday saying that the district plans to reduce student assessments or testing by as much as two-thirds of what they currently receive. A new agreement between the district and the Rochester Teachers Association will dramatically reduce the number of tests teachers will have to administer.
While many parents have been quite vocal about their opposition to high-stakes testing, the big winners here are teachers. Forty percent of a teacher’s evaluation is derived from how their students perform on tests, according to the current Annual Professional Performance Review. Vargas says the local tests are the ones that will be eliminated. State exams like the regents will still be required.
Vargas’s announcement follows the first time APPR evaluations for teachers have been issued where testing counts as a measure of a teacher’s effectiveness. Most teachers received their evaluations earlier this month and many of them, as well as RTA leader, Adam Urbanski, were dismayed by the results. Many district teachers, including some veterans who have been employed with the district for years, received evaluations indicating they needed improvement.
High-stakes testing has been a source of tension for many parents and education advocates for several years. But the resistance to testing became even more intense following the most recent set of state exams. State Education Commissioner John King tried to tamp down the negative press and ease heightened parental concern about the latest results, which showed lowered scores statewide in math and ELA due to tougher tests.
The latest test results are supposed to serve as a benchmark for student proficiency standards as districts across the state implement the new, more rigorous curriculum called the Common Core. Even the tougher curriculum has been a concern for parents.
The new agreement between the district and the teachers union for less testing still requires state approval, but Vargas says the arrangement is similar to agreements reached in other districts. While Vargas has been stressing the need for increased accountability, a theme also coming out of Albany, agreeing to less testing could be viewed as lowering the standards to make the APPR a little more teacher-friendly.
If you agree with me that our children are required to take too many assessment exams, I am writing with excellent news. The District plans to reduce the number of required assessment exams this year by as much as two-thirds. This will lower stress for students and teachers while increasing time for classroom instruction.
If the State Education Department approves, the changes we are proposing will take effect immediately. They will eliminate nearly all of the pre-assessment exams children would have been required to take this fall, and many post-assessment exams in the spring.
We will achieve this by making a change to teacher evaluations as part of the Annual Professional Performance Review process (APPR). It will dramatically reduce the number of local assessments used to calculate APPR scores. Through an agreement with the unions that represent our teachers and school administrators, we plan to meet most APPR requirements using data from the state tests children take each spring—Math and ELA exams for grades 3 through 8, or Regents exams in high school. Students will continue to take local assessments for subjects and grade levels not measured by state tests.
I should be clear that many schools will continue to give assessment exams this fall, to help teachers provide instruction by identifying the educational needs of your children. But we are eliminating most of the tests that were being used to meet APPR requirements.
Parents and teachers have told us overwhelmingly that they want to reduce the number of assessments children must take. As Superintendent, I am delighted to let you know that our District is responding to your concerns. As an educator, I am delighted that we are freeing up more classroom time for teaching and learning, with less time spent on testing.
Although this agreement requires State approval, it is similar to APPR approaches being used or proposed by other districts. That makes us very hopeful of receiving quick approval. We have notified school Principals that the APPR pre-assessments planned for later this month have been canceled.
I hope that the school year is off to a strong start for your family, and that it will only get better thanks to this news. Our District is honored to serve your children. We will continue working to improve student achievement and the experience of attending city schools.
Superintendent of Schools