testing testing

City schools to act as pilot sites for new national standard tests

Students at 100 New York City schools will be among the first to take early versions of the new standardized tests being built with federal dollars.

The schools will test early versions of new third- through eleventh-grade exams that a consortium of 26 states — New York included — is creating. The same schools will get extra funding this year to pilot the new common core standards in their classrooms.

Because New York is a “governing state” in the consortium, its education officials have already agreed to begin using the new tests by the 2014 school year. It also means that New York officials, including city Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky, are helping design the new tests.

The PARCC group — Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers — won a $170 million federal grant yesterday, which it will use to build the tests.

The new exams will complement the new national education standards that New York has also agreed to take on. They will also completely overhaul the form that state standardized exams take, and when they’re given, Suransky said today.

Right now, New York students sit for state standardized tests once a year, and the state reports results months later, over the summer. The tests consist mainly of multiple-choice questions, along with several free-response questions.

The new state test will be designed with four separate parts that students take over the course of the full school year, Suransky said. The first two parts, which students will take earlier in the year, will be shorter assignments that cover material the students should have learned up to that point. The third assignment will be longer and more complex. The fourth will be a comprehensive exam measuring a year’s worth of learning and will be given at the end of the school year.

And the consortium intends to dispense with much of the multiple-choice testing that students currently sit through, Suransky said. Instead, the assessments might take the form of a research paper or long-form math problems, for example.

“Those kinds of assignments are actually closer to the kinds of tasks that teachers are using in classrooms anyway,” Suransky said. “These will function as a way to test some of the new, higher-order skills that are in the common core standards.”

Suransky and other test designers are trying to meet a federal goal to create tests that better reflect student learning. “By far the number one complaint I’ve heard from teachers, from parents, from students themselves is that state bubble tests pressure teachers to teach to a test that doesn’t really measure what matters,” U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan told reporters yesterday when he announced the grant funds.

At the end of the year, students’ four test scores will be combined into a single score. And teachers will also receive reports of their students’ performance on each of the individual sections weeks after they take them, so that they can use the results to adjust their teaching over the course of the year.

In that way, the new tests are designed to replace both the annual state tests and the diagnostic tests that many city schools already give students over the course of the year to track their progress, Suransky said. Suransky and federal officials said the new exams could lessen or roughly equal the amount of time students currently spend hunched over exams.

“I would argue we actually over-test now, in many places, in ways that aren’t helpful to the child and to the school and to the teacher,” Duncan said.

There’s also the possibility that the consortium’s tests for high school students will eventually replace the state’s current Regents exams. The state’s Board of Regents have not made a decision on the fate of the high school exams yet, though Suransky said he expects them to take up the question in the next few years.

The consortium is currently in the earliest stages of designing the new tests and will likely evolve over the next three years as designers build the new exams and test their validity.

Read the PARCC Consortium’s full grant application, which lays out its plans for building the new assessments in detail, here. Section A(3), which begins on page 43, gives a good description of what the new tests will look like.

money matters

Report: Trump education budget would create a Race to the Top for school choice

PHOTO: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead
President Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos participate in a tour of Saint Andrews Catholic in Orlando, Florida.

The Trump administration appears to be going ahead with a $1 billion effort to push districts to allow school choice, according to a report in the Washington Post.

The newspaper obtained what appears to be an advance version of the administration’s education budget, set for release May 23. The budget documents reflect more than $10 billion in cuts, many of which were included in the budget proposal that came out in March, according to the Post’s report. They include cuts to after-school programs for poor students, teacher training, and more:

… a $15 million program that provides child care for low-income parents in college; a $27 million arts education program; two programs targeting Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students, totaling $65 million; two international education and foreign language programs, $72 million; a $12 million program for gifted students; and $12 million for Special Olympics education programs.

Other programs would not be eliminated entirely, but would be cut significantly. Those include grants to states for career and technical education, which would lose $168 million, down 15 percent compared to current funding; adult basic literacy instruction, which would lose $96 million (down 16 percent); and Promise Neighborhoods, an Obama-era initiative meant to build networks of support for children in needy communities, which would lose $13 million (down 18 percent).

The documents also shed some light on how the administration plans to encourage school choice. The March proposal said the administration would spend $1 billion to encourage districts to switch to “student-based budgeting,” or letting funds flow to students rather than schools.

The approach is considered essential for school choice to thrive. Yet the mechanics of the Trump administration making it happen are far from obvious, as we reported in March:

There’s a hitch in the budget proposal: Federal law spells out exactly how Title I funds must be distributed, through funding formulas that sends money to schools with many poor students.

“I do not see a legal way to spend a billion dollars on an incentive for weighted student funding through Title I,” said Nora Gordon, an associate professor of public policy at Georgetown University. “I think that would have to be a new competitive program.”

There are good reasons for the Trump administration not to rush into creating a program in which states compete for new federal funds, though. … Creating a new program would open the administration to criticism of overreach — which the Obama administration faced when it used the Race to the Top competition to get states to adopt its priorities.

It’s unclear from the Post’s report how the Trump administration is handling Gordon’s concerns. But the Post reports that the administration wants to use a competitive grant program — which it’s calling Furthering Options for Children to Unlock Success, or FOCUS — to redistribute $1 billion in Title I funds for poor students. That means the administration decided that an Obama-style incentive program is worth the potential risks.

The administration’s budget request would have to be fulfilled by Congress, so whether any of the cuts or new programs come to pass is anyone’s guess. Things are not proceeding normally in Washington, D.C., right now.

By the numbers

After reshaping itself to combat declining interest, Teach For America reports a rise in applications

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Memphis corps members of Teach For America participate in a leadership summit in last August.

Teach for America says its application numbers jumped by a significant number this year, reversing a three-year trend of declining interest in the program.

The organization’s CEO said in a blog post this week that nearly 49,000 people applied for the 2017 program, which places college graduates in low-income schools across the country after summer training — up from just 37,000 applicants last year.

“After three years of declining recruitment, our application numbers spiked this year, and we’re in a good position to meet our goals for corps size, maintaining the same high bar for admission that we always have,” Elisa Villanueva Beard wrote. The post was reported by Politico on Wednesday.

The news comes after significant shake-ups at the organization. One of TFA’s leaders left in late 2015, and the organization slashed its national staff by 15 percent last year. As applications fell over the last several years, it downsized in places like New York City and Memphis, decentralized its operations, and shifted its focus to attracting a more diverse corps with deeper ties to the locations where the program places new teachers. 

This year’s application numbers are still down from 2013, when 57,000 people applied for a position. But Villanueva Beard said the changes were working, and that “slightly more than half of 2017 applicants identify as a person of color.”