By MICHAEL GORMLEY
ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Some standardized tests in New York public schools will be eliminated, state Education Commissioner John King has told superintendents in a surprising announcement that cites "a variety of pressures" that may have hurt instruction. The move comes after years of criticism from teachers, parents and other detractors, some of whom said it still fell short.
The first target will be an eighth-grade math test, which comes at the same time as a federally required standardized test in math, King wrote in a letter sent Thursday and obtained by The Associated Press.
The Board of Regents is considering eliminating that test and others where possible in other grades, King said. Some tests, however, are required by the federal government. Grants will be provided to help school districts reduce local standardized tests, the letter states.
Noting that the frequency and number of tests has remained relatively constant over the past 10 years, King wrote that education officials "recognize that a variety of pressures at the state and local level may have resulted in more testing than is needed and in rote test preparation that crowds out quality instruction."
King told the state School Boards Association on Friday that nothing is settled yet but the U.S. Education Department seems receptive to granting the Regents exam's request for a waiver, according to Robert Lowry, spokesman for the New York State Council of School Superintendents, who was in the audience for King's speech.
The move came after an outcry over testing and teacher evaluations linked to the results, which peaked when King was shouted down by critics at an Oct. 10 forum in Poughkeepsie. That confrontation that led to cancellation of other scheduled forums and calls for King's resignation.
This week, King said, the Regents discussed "a comprehensive initiative to keep the focus on teaching."
"The Regents and the department will continue to look for ways to reduce testing that is not needed without sacrificing the valuable information assessments provide," King told superintendents in more than 700 school districts. "We welcome your input."
It's potentially a marked change for the Board of Regents, which has weathered criticism for well over a decade from teachers, their unions and groups of parents as it has tried to improve student performance and instruction. Its steps toward that goal included introduction of so-called school report cards to allow the public to compare similar schools' performance, detailed analysis of test scores to pinpoint weaknesses and best practices in instruction, curriculum revised by experts in math and science, and far more rigorous requirements for graduation from high school to better prepare students for college.
The Regents have often led or were among leaders in these initiatives. Performance in most areas improved, including closing the gap between poor and "average needs" schools. But with the added testing by the state and the federal government now introducing higher standards under its Common Core, there was more concern that students were too stressed and teachers spent time "teaching to the test" rather than instruction.
"Testing is an important part of the instructional cycle and necessary to monitor student academic progress and contribute to decisions at the classroom, school, district, and state levels," King told superintendents. "However, the amount of testing should be the minimum necessary to inform effective decision-making. Test results should be used only as one of multiple measures of progress, and tests should reflect our instructional priorities."
Superintendents welcomed King's move. They were eager to address the double, and sometimes triple, testing of eighth-graders, Lowry said.
"Standardized tests do have a place in education but not for what they're currently being used for," said Teresa Thayer Snyder, superintendent of the Voorheesville Central School District south of Albany. "They're very useful for diagnostics but to use blanket standardized tests over an extended period of time for very young learners is not an appropriate way to represent learning."
The effort is too little and too late for Allies for Public Education, which called for King's resignation this week.
"Eliminating a few standardized tests is like touching up the paint on a car and expecting it will run when in fact it has a faulty engine," said the group's spokesman, Eric Mihelbergel. "Until the high-stakes nature of testing is removed and the collection of private personal student data is halted, our children will continue to be harmed."
"New York's schools have taken hostage by an obsession with testing," said Billy Easton of the Alliance for Quality Education, which has long criticized the tests. "We need less testing, but we also need to freeze all high stakes consequences tied to testing,"
King told superintendents that the first goal is to eliminate double testing for eighth-graders. Students taking accelerated math now take both the Regents algebra exam and the federally required Grade 8 Mathematics exam. The Board of Regents is directing King to secure a waiver to use only the Regents exam.
The immediate effort also looks at reducing tests for English language learners and for disabled students.
"Students are best prepared to succeed academically through rigorous and engaging instruction, not rote test preparation," King said. "Teaching is the core of our work. The goal is not to create more tests or more teaching to the tests."
AP Writer Carolyn Thompson in Buffalo contributed to this report.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.