School districts in Onondaga and Madison counties have decided to change the dates of their spring breaks so that they don’t conflict with English Language Arts state assessment exams.
State Education Commissioner Dr. John King announced last week in a letter to districts statewide that the dates of the exams had been changed to the week of April 16. That’s the same week spring break is scheduled to take place for 10 percent of districts statewide, including all districts that have a contract for shared services with Onondaga-Cortland-Madison BOCES.
The tests used to take place in May, but the State Education Department moved them up to accommodate a new teacher assessment system.
“As we move toward the new teacher and principal evaluation system, the timing of the assessment results becomes increasingly more important,” King said in his letter. “In order to ensure results are available in time for these evaluations to be completed, we must have the assessments completed, graded and the results distributed to the field by June 15. That deadline necessitates that the exams be administered in April.”
The breaks were originally scheduled to take place that same week. After meeting with superintendents from across Central New York today, OCM-BOCES Superintendent Jessica Cohen announced that the group decided to recommend moving the break back to April 9 through the 13.
“We thought that was the best solution,” Cohen said.
Many of the school districts originally scheduled their breaks last March when they made their calendars so that families could schedule vacations. The change in schedule could present a problem for the test should enough families keep their kids out of school during the exams; if less than 95 percent of students are present for the tests, the results could be invalidated and the school listed among low-achievers by the state.
The move must still be approved by all school boards involved. Both Liverpool and North Syracuse are expected to address the issue at their Sept. 12 board of education meetings.
In a letter to parents, North Syracuse Superintendent Dr. Kim Dyce Faucette lamented the move but said the district had little choice in the matter.
“We are disappointed and appreciate the potential disruption this change will have on our families and school staff who may have made family plans and personal commitments for spring recess, April 16 to 20,” the letter stated. “At the present time, we have been given no choice but to comply with this directive, and as a result, we are now considering moving spring recess to the week of April 9 to 13, pending board approval. Commissioner John King has apologized for the change and recognizes the disruption this change will cause to our families.”
Dr. Richard Johns, superintendent of schools for Liverpool, was much more critical of the commissioner’s decision. He said the decision to move the break is based on a system that shouldn’t exist in the first place.
“This is all motivated by the Annual Professional Performance Review [APPR] process, and I’m not a huge fan of APPR,” Johns said. “We’ve worked on improvement efforts. We’re giving it to the board right now. We have school excellence teams working every day on school improvements, and we keep data like nobody’s business. We do it on a building-by-building basis. This is going to be horrible.”
Johns pointed out that the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) has already sued the New York State Board of Regents contesting the legitimacy of APPR regulations and met with success; the State Supreme Court in Albany invalidated several provisions of the statute.
“It’s not valid,” Johns said. “You can’t say to teacher who teaches special ed. and teacher who teaches third grade that their test performance ought to be the same. Obviously, what we do is a team thing, and every player has to do their part, but they all do different things. This is really a blunt sword, and it’s not an appropriate way to attack school improvement.”
Johns said the process has been too rushed to be effective, which also explains the late change to the ELA testing dates.
“The whole thing has been on this breakneck pace,” he said. “The state has basically said they’re going to do it this year, no matter what, and remove all the obstacles because it’s most important thing since Moses came down with the tablets. They did it with no input from anybody. I think they’re fixing the landing gear on the airplane while it’s rolling down the tarmac. They don’t know what they’re doing.”
Johns said the district still has to shift the break to ensure that as many students will be present as possible. Otherwise, Liverpool schools risk being placed on the state and federal “Schools in Need of Improvement” lists, which jeopardizes their federal funding. However, even with the date change, many families will still likely keep their original plans and travel the week of April 16.
“If stop and think about it, our data are going to be skewed,” Johns said. “Kids will go on vacation anyway. Our data will be invalid, and the state will take into this and use it for the APPR process. Does that make any sense to you?”
Johns said there is little he and other local superintendents can do but accept the commissioner’s decision.
“We’re all aware that there’s not much we can do on a local basis,” he said, “but that doesn’t mean that we’re not responsible for the carnage.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.