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New teacher evaluations, based in part on student achievement, will be introduced in schools across the state in this school year - and with them will come more student testing.
To evaluate teacher effectiveness, schools must measure how much progress students make in each course. So schools are adding locally developed tests to their existing schedule of state tests and course exams.
"We can easily say there will be more testing than there was before," said Marie Balen, Williamsville's assistant superintendent for instruction. "What we tried to do is look at our whole test regimen. We don't want to layer test upon test upon test."
Whenever possible, many school officials said, they are trying to find ways to use existing tests for the teacher-evaluation purposes, or substitute new tests for old ones. The state allows only certain types of tests to be used to measure student growth for the teacher evaluations.
Williamsville, for instance, is using scores on advanced placement exams that students in those courses already take to count toward measuring student achievement for teacher evaluations in 17 courses - everything from Advanced Placement music theory to AP statistics.
But the district also has had to develop its own assessments for literally dozens of other courses - from second-grade physical education to jazz improvisation and public speaking.
During this school year, districts are required to tie 20 to 25 percent of teachers' evaluations to locally determined student achievement or growth.
For fourth- to eighth-grade teachers - whose students already take state tests at the end of the year - an additional 20 percent of their evaluation is based on a state-calculated measure of student growth.
But for the other 80 percent of teachers - those who teach courses not tested by the state every year, everything from kindergarten to physical education to AP physics - schools have to come up with their own way to measure how much students learn.
Some courses lend themselves more easily to traditional paper-and-pencil tests than others. For those that don't, the state allows for other approaches.
"When it comes to things like music and art and physical education, the state allows us to do performance assessments," said Karen Marchioli, director of elementary education in Lancaster.
Students in band might be evaluated based on their performance of a piece of music, for instance.
Generally, for most courses, officials at various local schools said they have asked their teachers to spend no more than one class period giving students the tests tied to teacher evaluations.
"They're not quizzes, but they're not the nine hours of testing that go on with the state assessments," Marchioli said.
In many cases, teachers have to give two tests: one at the beginning of the course, and another at the end of the course, so that teachers can determine how much students learned during the semester or the year.
School officials say they are eager to comply with the state requirements tied to the teacher evaluations - if they don't, they will lose this year's increase in state aid. But teachers and administrators also are sensitive to parental concerns about the amount of time already spent on testing.
"Most districts are trying very hard to use data in the most effective way possible and not be redundant in our testing of students," Marchioli said.
The state gave districts a menu of options to choose from for measuring student growth. A review of several districts' teacher-evaluation plans showed there seem to be two options that schools are choosing most: buying assessments from outside vendors or having school staff develop their own assessments.
Several districts surveyed by The Buffalo News said they could not identify a specific dollar amount they had spent to purchase tests from vendors or develop them with using their own staff, but estimated the cost in the hundreds of thousands.
The New York State Council of School Superintendents has voiced concerns over the costs.
"In the economic environment we're in, it's really challenging and it's a major initiative," said Robert J. Reidy Jr., the group's executive director. "Superintendents support it but have concerns over whether they'll have resources to do it the way it's intended. We don't want this to be a compliance exercise. We want this to help children's learning."
The state forbids teachers to develop the entire assessment their students will take, in an effort to guard against cheating. Teachers can, however, write some of the individual questions for the tests.
Locally, about 700 teachers from various districts spent two days at Erie 1 Board of Cooperative Educational Services, developing "banks" of questions that schools can then draw from to put together their assessments.
Just as the state has outlined security preparations for test development, the state also has issued clear guidelines regarding test scoring, prohibiting teachers from scoring their own students' assessments.
Districts are in various stages of developing teacher-evaluation plans for this year. A few, including Williamsville and Alden, already have had plans approved by the state Education Department. Others, including Grand Island, Lancaster and Buffalo, are still ironing out specifics in the hope of getting them to pass muster in Albany.
Districts have until mid-January to get their plans approved before they lose their increase in state aid. But districts must begin administering pretests in many courses early in the semester.
As they schedule the tests, they seek to balance the need to give the assessments as early as possible, before too much content is taught, to get an accurate measure of where students were before the course started - and not wanting to overwhelm students with tests right away.
"We are all concerned that we don't want to open our school year and spend the first several weeks testing our kids," said Karen Cuddy-Miller, Grand Island's director of curriculum and instruction.

email: mpasciak@buffnews.com