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Regents testing may cost districts

TIMES STAFF WRITER
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The state Education Department needs money to cover Regents exam costs, and it's considering a proposal to charge school districts nearly $6 per head.


"No action has been taken and it's not clear at this point which, if any, of the proposals will be adopted," said Jonathan D. Burman, state Education Department spokesman. "In light of the state's dire fiscal situation, the Regents are thinking about various actions they can take proactively to ensure the continued viability of our Regents exam testing program."


The Board of Regents discussed the funding problem and possible solutions at its meeting in October. At this point, the cost-cutting options are just proposals. The department has asked the state Legislature for $15 million, which would allow the department to continue to administer Regents exams in subjects including chemistry, geometry and U.S. history and government.


If the requested funding doesn't come through, the department is considering options including transferring the cost to districts, eliminating tests in subject areas that are not required for federal accountability and eliminating January Regents examinations.


"People may complain about the Regents, but it does provide a teacher with a basic road map of what should be covered in a course," said Jack J. Boak Jr., superintendent of the Jefferson-Lewis Board of Cooperative Educational Services. "If there isn't a check on that at the end, it could have a far-reaching implication on what is ultimately taught. And a charge for school districts would be another one of those unfunded mandates that aren't very popular with school boards and administrators."


North country educators are concerned about what this and other cost-cutting proposals the department is considering could mean for school districts financially and academically.


"It would definitely change the assessment system because then you need to gauge how kids can graduate. The testing is part of what that is based on," Carthage Superintendent Joseph M. Catanzaro said. "To test a whole state, there's an obvious expense involved. I guess they're trying to save money like everyone is."


The approximate cost for developing a single Regents examination is $250,000, Mr. Burman said.


"It's transferring from one tax to another tax, just moving to the local taxpayers," said Kenneth J. McAuliffe, superintendent of Lowville Academy and Central School District. "The idea of paying for Regents is almost unfathomable. Not all schools will be able to do it. If some can't even afford some library books, they won't be able to spend $10,000 for testing."


State Education Law Section 209 gives the Regents general authority to set a fee for the examinations, according to a memo from state Senior Deputy Commissioner of Education John B. King Jr. to the Regents Subcommittee on State Aid.


If the Education Department charges districts for the tests, it may use average exam costs or census charge-backs. The census method would calculate a per-student amount by dividing the total cost of all Regents exams by the total number of students statewide. Based on data from the 2008-09 school year, that formula would cost districts $5.93 per student annually, the memo said.


New York City's roughly 987,000 student population would result in a nearly $6 million charge for the district. The smallest districts in the state could be paying less than $2,000, the memo said.


The census formula would have districts paying by the head for their whole student population, including elementary students, who won't take the Regents for years.


For some of the largest school districts in Jefferson County, such as Watertown City and Indian River Central, which have student enrollments that are around 4,000 students, the cost to administer the examinations could be around $24,000 per year.


"It's a big issue because it's another unfunded mandate," Watertown Superintendent Terry N. Fralick said. "That amount out of a $60 million budget may not seem like a lot, but it adds to the problem."


For a smaller school district such as Sackets Harbor Central, which has fewer than 500 students, the cost would be around $2,800.


If some of the Regents examinations were eliminated and tests began being developed more locally or regionally by BOCES, that could be harmful to the consistency of the information that is taught across the state, Mr. Boak said.


"Unless there is a very sharp increase in the amount of money given by the state Legislature, it seems that some examinations would need to be cut," Mr. Boak said. "That could mean coming together at the BOCES level to write tests."


Removing Regents exams would take away one of the major data sources for secondary student achievement. For elementary-level students, the state assessments are used, and at the secondary level, it's the Regents that provide student testing data, Mr. McAuliffe said.


"I think everyone has worked over the last generation to set the bar high, but to a Regents diploma attainable for most students," Mr. McAuliffe said. "I think any movement away from that is movement in the wrong direction."


The state is in the process of implementing new requirements aimed at raising student achievement, including factoring achievement into teacher and administrator evaluations. But to implement that while also considering removing some of the testing that measures student achievement seem to send mixed signals, Mr. McAuliffe said.


"To do things for the purpose of raising achievement based on base line data and then remove the Regents, which provide a lot of that data seems to be contrary," Mr. McAuliffe said. "Data is now going to be used more directly than ever before for evaluations."

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