State to seek waivers exempting some students from federally mandated tests

Come June, New York State students who are learning English as a second language or have special needs may see relief from certain state testing requirements.

New York State Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch announced at a New York State Senate education committee hearing on Tuesday that the state will request relief from federal No Child Left Behind testing requirements that she called “cruel and unusual.”

Merryl Tisch, Chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents, speaks at a Manhattan event earlier this week. Photo: Patrick Wall/Gotham Schools

Merryl Tisch, Chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents, speaks at a Manhattan event earlier this week. Photo: Patrick Wall/Gotham Schools

Specifically, Tisch is calling for the suspension of the mandate that students with special needs be tested at their age, not their achievement level. As for students learning English, Tisch wants to lift the rule that currently forces students to take the English Language Arts test after one year in the United States.

Senator Toby Ann Stavisky (D- Queens), whose majority Asian district stretches along the Long Island Expressway from Elmhurst to Bayside and includes a large swath of Flushing, asked Tisch if she thought that the change would help English language learners.

In response, Tisch stressed her commitment to getting ELLs and special education students college and career ready. “I come from a family of immigrants,” said the chancellor, “so language acquisition is very important to me.”

The state expects to submit a waiver request to the federal Department of Education by late January. Tisch offered qualified optimism that the state will receive the waiver.

“The feds should look favorably at the request, but they are looking closely at the rhetoric coming from the states,” she said.

Shael Polakow-Suransky, second-in-command at the New York City Department of Education agreed with the chancellor on the need for a change in how the schools test students still striving to learn English.

“We don’t think it is appropriate that [No Child] requires the one-year testing,” said Polakow-Suransky. “It takes three to five years for kids to become functional at an academic level in a language.”

But he did note why the provision was placed in the law in the first place: “It was instituted partly due to the concerns of immigrant advocates who worried ELLs were being forgotten about.”

Polakow-Suransky was previously the founding principal of the Bronx International High School, which was designed to educate recent immigrants.

“The state already permits test translations for the math, science, and social studies exams but this is the first I’ve heard of any state seeking to translate their ELA exam,” Kate Menken, an Associate Professor of Linguistics at Queens College of the City University of New York, wrote in an email.

“It makes sense, given the purpose of these exams is to assess a students’ knowledge of literary elements, ability to analyze literary sources, how to write an essay (e.g., narrative, persuasuive, etc.) and so on,” she argued. “It will not altogether erase the influence of language learning on test scores, because students will have received instruction on how to do these things entirely in English or in a mixture of English and their home language if they are in a bilingual program, but it’s a start.

Educators working with special education students promoted similar concerns of exclusion, prior to the passage of the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that New York state was seeking relief from NCLB’s requirement that English Learners take english proficiency tests after spending a year in the country, not the English Language Arts exam requirement. 

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