June 2002

Report to the State Board of Regents
BY STATE EDUCATION COMMISSIONER RICHARD P. MILLS


The Meeting in Brief: The academic year draws to a close. Itís time for reflection on the year just passed and preparation for the work ahead. The look back includes the 655 Report, a USNY annual report, and the Regents evaluation of the Commissioner. The EMSC Committee will provide an update on the implementation of the career and technical education policy, an overview of the State testing program and a status report on middle level education.

The Quality Committee will prepare for the look ahead by completing plans for the July policy retreat. Regents will also continue discussion of the 2003-04 budget, hear the recommendations of the advisory panel on advocating for closing the performance gap, and discuss the early actions in Roosevelt since State legislation passed. They will consider another of the "horizon issues" in the professions Ė the looming shortage of pharmacists.


"Improving Testing is Part of the Reform"

Our exams must be the best. That includes elementary and middle grades exams and Regents exams. The standard cannot be "no worse than others," or "what we have always done." In technical terms, we must meet or exceed the Joint Standards for assessment that discipline the testing industry nation-wide. For parents and the public in general, we must assure that the tests are fair to children and that they reliably measure achievement of the learning standards. For teachers and other educators, we must demonstrate that the tests fairly measure what students are learning. The results must be valid, reliable, timely and understandable.

Last month, a number of authors objected to the Departmentís practice of changing words in literature used on exams. I immediately ended that practice. I also directed that the "sensitivity guidelines" that were a part of that practice would no longer be used, although we will continue to assure that the exams are fair to all students. Here again is what I said: "The tests now being developed will use literary passages without changing the authorís words. Literature will continue to be excerpted for length because entire works cannot appear on a single test. All passages will cite the author and title of the work."

One Regent who reflected on this said, "improving testing is part of the reform." And that is the right path. New York, unlike some other testing organizations, publishes the full text of the exams used to measure achievement of the standards. This gives the public and the educational community the opportunity to engage in the kind of criticism we have just heard. And this is good. It will improve the quality of the testing system. To that end, the State Education Department will release the exams after the students take them each day next week so that everyone can see the questions. See schedule below for release date.

Release of Exams*

Tuesday, June 18

English Session one
Global History and Geography
Earth Science

Wednesday, June 19

English Session two
Living Environment
Math A

Thursday, June 20

U.S. History & Government

*Exams will be released late in the afternoon on the date indicated

We have listened to criticism in the past and used it to improve. For example, we created the opportunity for students to retake portions of the exams that they had failed in previous tries. This idea was a response to a challenge from educators. We changed the 8th grade testing schedule. We allowed districts to set the passing score at 55 as a transition in the early years. We created a safety net for students with disabilities. All of these ideas were the product of open debate.

In the future we will use a straightforward approach. We will use good literature without changing words. We will be fair to children. We will select passages that are understandable to children regardless of where they live. And we will use common sense.

Now letís remind ourselves about what is good about the New York testing system. For example, all of the exams are linked to the standards. New York teachers write the questions. We have a technical advisory panel of some of the nationís foremost testing experts. The tests use serious literature and historical documents. Contrary to some of the current criticism, the tests include controversy and serious topics, as you will see next week. We use extensive field testing and statistical analysis to assure validity and reliability. For the last two years the State Education Department has hosted a technical assessment conference to review the technical quality of the assessment with national experts, New York educators and the public.

The standards have widespread support among the public and educators. The Regents raised standards in response to public demand. The very idea of standards is at the heart of Regents work from the very beginning. The problem is that the standards have too often been for some students, while others received a lower quality education. The pivotal event of the last decade has been to assert higher standards for all students and to link standards to a set of exams to measure their attainment.

The tests measure achievement of the standards. By publishing those results, the gaps in student achievement became obvious to all. Schools and whole communities responded by improving the quality of curriculum, instruction, and took other actions to improve opportunity for children. This is a very good result. We could always go back to where we were Ė to a rhetorical appreciation for high standards, but something much lower in practice. But that is not the direction demanded by the public or common sense.

The Regents exams themselves have existed since 1865. They have been a pathway to higher learning and a better life for generations of New York children. We are going to keep this system. And we are going to improve it relentlessly.

Some people oppose these exams. I respect their views but do not share them. We have heard and considered their views on many occasions. For example, we have given serious attention to proposals to adopt their portfolio proposal. Unfortunately, those proposals did not meet Regents criteria, which reflect the Joint Standards. We have however approved 18 alternatives to the Regents exams that can be used by any school. We have debated their proposal with some elected leaders who spoke on their behalf several times. We have listened to teachers and parents during Regents regional meetings. We have responded in court and the court found that our decision was fair. The disagreements will no doubt continue. The Regents, however, have made a reasonable policy decision on testing after concluding that it is a powerful lever to improve student achievement. Here we stand.

Teacher of the Year: A Way to Signal High Standards

Last month the Regents adopted a series of policy changes to increase the pool of teacher candidates who met Regents standards. They acted in response to data they considered in December on the shortage of teachers.

We have begun follow through already with discussions with Chancellor Levy in preparation for further discussion with higher education leaders.

This month, we recognize the 2003 Teacher of the Year. This is another way to signal the standard, and in fact it is the personal standard Ė the excellent teacher Ė who is probably the greatest motivator for others to consider teaching as a career. When I meet the Teacher of the Year and the other teachers nominated for this award, I will urge them to join us in recruiting future teachers.

Deputy Commissioners Kadamus and Duncan-Poitier are planning a series of "Calls to Teaching" in cities this fall in concert with the District Superintendents. This will involve elementary and secondary school leaders, teachers, higher education leaders, parents, and above all, prospective teachers.

Roosevelt Since the New Legislation

Superintendent Horace Williams and Board Chair Edward McCormick will talk with the Regents on June 18 for a first-hand view of what has been accomplished. We have jointly developed a performance agreement that specifies expected results on these objectives: ensure safety, improve academic performance, improve the learning environment, improve instruction, evaluate performance, guarantee financial integrity, improve facilities, and provide leadership.

The new legislation requires three plans this summer: five-year financial plan, an educational plan, and a facilities plan. The Superintendent has begun work on all three and State Education Department staff is helping. The law requires an opportunity for the public to be heard on these plans and my approval.

Commissionerís Annual Evaluation

The Regents will evaluate my performance over the last year during the June meeting. I have a performance agreement, as do all managers in the State Education Department. The basis for the review will be the eight critical needs identified by the Regents as priorities and selected performance measures from our Strategic Plan.

An Annual Report for USNY

Late last year State Education Department staff member Peg Rivers suggested the need for an annual report on the University of the State of New York. I agreed, asked her for a proposal, got one in short order, and assigned the management of the project to her. She assembled a team from across the State Education Department and produced the first USNY annual report, which is now before the Regents.

This report is organized not around the parts of the University but the goals. It is intended as a way to help people visualize what the Regents and the University is and does. After the Regents reflect on this version, we will begin preparing the 2002 annual report.

Eliot Spitzerís Report on Non-Public Education

Attorney General Eliot Spitzer published a report that proposes four changes in legislation, and the starting point is the Regents statement of higher standards. The Attorney General proposes these changes:

Provide additional state funding to school districts to allow them to provide Academic Intervention Services to students in non-public schools.

Provide additional state funding for computer hardware to be loaned to non-public school students.

Reimburse non-public schools and their teachers for two days of training each year on state test administration.

Permit special education services to be provided to non-public school students by public schools, with the services to be provided in the non-public school or some other location.

The report states that the State Education Department said that schools have a legal obligation to provide these services. We have not taken this position. The Attorney Generalís view is that recent Supreme Court decisions have expanded the boundaries of what is constitutionally permitted in this area. The EMSC Committee may want to consider this report in advance of the Regents legislative and policy conference in October.

Public Library Districts

One element of the Regents New Centuries Library proposal is the use of financial incentives to create public library districts. In advance of legislation to accomplish this, several communities have pressed ahead on their own. Recently four communities have voted to form public library districts: Albany, Smithtown, Morrisville, and Attica. Two others voted down such proposals. Since the beginning of 1999, voters have created 11 new public library districts and thereby brought public library services to 143,000 more New Yorkers.

Chapter 655 Report

The 655 Report tells a story that is both hopeful and challenging. The hope comes from abundant evidence of rising achievement for so many students. The challenge is in the data about the gaps in student achievement. And there is this paragraph in the conclusion:

"In too many schools with large numbers of minority students and concentrated poverty, many students left school without diplomas and many who graduated were not prepared for a complex and changing economy. Too many fourth graders and eighth graders had not acquired the skills and knowledge in English language arts and mathematics required to succeed in higher grades Ė and thus, without dramatic changes in the educational system, are destined to follow their brothers and sisters into lives of poverty."
We can and will do better.

No Child Left Behind

On June 12, we sent to the US Department of Education our State Consolidated State Application for more then $1.5 billion in federal funds under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), including the Title I funded program. The application reflects the Regents Strategic Plan and the "Closing the Gap" strategy which are aligned with the expectations of the Act.

We also sent a letter requesting guidance on how we can comply with requirements regarding "highly qualified" professional staff and paraprofessionals.

Our regional meetings on the NCLB Act continue. Detailed information on these regional meetings, as well as other information related to the NCLB Act, is available on the web at: http://www.emsc.nysed.gov/deputy/nclb/nclb_home.htm.


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