waive goodbye

Tisch: I’d ‘think twice’ before opting into state testing if I had a special-needs child

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch with then-State Education Commissioner John King in 2014. Tisch said she would "think twice" about opting into the state tests if she were a parent with a student with special needs.

New York’s top education official, who sharply criticized parents who might keep their children from taking state tests a few months ago, offered a different message for parents of some students with special needs on Monday.

“Personally, I would say that if I was the mother of a student with a certain type of disability, I would think twice before I allowed my child to sit through an exam that was incomprehensible to them,” Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said in Albany.

Tisch’s remarks came after federal education officials rejected New York’s request to loosen testing requirements for some high-needs students in June. The waiver would have exempted English language learners who have attended U.S. schools for less than two years from taking the tests, and assessed students with severe disabilities based on their instructional level, rather than their age-based grade.

Tisch has never disagreed with critics who say testing requirements for certain high-needs students are unfair, though she also hadn’t before suggested that opting students out was the right response. The solution, she said, would come through the state’s test-exemption request.

But the Obama administration’s denial means state education officials won’t be able to ease testing anxiety for those students and parents as they thought they might be able to. It also represents a roadblock in their efforts to reduce the general opposition to state tests that has steadily grown over the last few years.

Anti-testing advocates have estimated that upwards of 200,000 New York students, or roughly 20 percent of test-takers, did not take the state English and math exams this year — more than double the number who opted out in 2014. (That share is considerably smaller in New York City.) Their parents say it is a form of activism against policies that has led to a narrowing of the focus of teaching and an overemphasis on tests.

Seeking to discourage more parents from joining in, Tisch said in March that parents who opted out of the 2015 tests were making a “terrible mistake because it eliminates important information about how our kids are doing.”

In the months since, the state has appointed a new education commissioner, MaryEllen Elia, and ended its main contract with Pearson, the test-maker that had become a target of the opt-out movement. Elia also announced on Monday that she was planning a full review of the state’s adoption of the Common Core learning standards and its testing policies (a move also required by law).

The U.S. Department of Education did approve many of New York’s requests for flexibility from the No Child Left Behind Act, which required states to annually test students in grades three through eight in math and English. The state is now making small changes to how it identifies struggling schools as a result, and will require more intensive intervention for schools that are re-identified as low-performing based on academic and achievement data from the last school year.

But its request to exempt certain high-need students from some testing requirements was denied. Assistant Secretary of Education Deborah Delisle wrote that the current testing requirements were necessary to ensure that academic progress of all students is properly tracked.

The federal education department did grant a waiver to Florida that would have allowed the test scores of certain high-need students to be withheld from the state’s school-accountability calculations. New York’s request would have actually exempted some students from the tests altogether.

For now, state officials say they have few options to reduce testing for those students.

Both houses of Congress are moving to change federal education law. The law was overhauled in 2002 by George W. Bush, and its standardized testing requirements and their stringent use for accountability purposes are among its least popular provisions. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives and Democrat-controlled Senate have advanced different versions of the law, which must ultimately get approval from President Obama.

Ira Schwartz, New York’s deputy education commissioner, said that neither version includes specific flexibility for high-needs students that they have been seeking.

Regent Roger Tilles asked if a lawsuit was possible, but state education officials said a similar, unsuccessful case in Connecticut meant that the chances of winning were grim. Tilles then said officials “should figure out a way to lodge a protest.”

“We thought that there were ways indicating that students were not up to their grade level without making them take a test that everybody knows they’re going to fail,” said Tilles.

“This would be the appropriate time to lodge that,” Schwartz responded.

getting to know you

These 10 Colorado lawmakers are rethinking how the state pays for its public schools

PHOTO: Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
State Sen. Rachel Zezninger, an Arvada Democrat, on the first day of the legislative session.

Ten Colorado lawmakers, many with longstanding ties to the education community, are set to begin debating the future of Colorado’s school finance system.

The legislative group tasked with studying and making recommendations about how the state pays for public education includes former teachers and superintendents, a former State Board of Education member and a practicing charter school lawyer.

State Rep. Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat, will lead the committee during its first year.

Garnett helped establish the committee earlier this year when he co-sponsored House Bill 1340 with state Rep. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican. Lundeen also will serve on the panel.

State Sen. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican, will be the vice-chair.

The committee was formed against a backdrop of fear that the state’s schools would face deep budget cuts next school year. However, lawmakers at the last minute averted putting the state’s schools in an even deeper financial hole.

Still, lawmakers from both parties and members of the state’s education community agree the funding system is outdated and in need of a massive overhaul. The state last made significant changes to the system in 1994.

The committee’s first meeting is scheduled for July 24. Among its first decisions will be selecting a third-party consultant to help with research and guide discussions and decisions.

Here’s the full committee:

  • State Rep. Alec Garnett, Denver Democrat, chair
  • State Sen. Owen Hill, Colorado Springs Republican, vice chair
  • State Sen. Janet Buckner, Aurora Democrat
  • State Sen. Bob Gardner, Colorado Springs Republican
  • State Rep. Millie Hamner, Frisco Democrat
  • State Rep. Timothy Leonard, Evergreen Republican
  • State Rep. Paul Lundeen, Monument Republican
  • State Sen. Michael Merrifield, Colorado Springs Democrat
  • State Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, Sterling Republican
  • State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, Arvada Democrat

CSI New York

Will you close my school? Transfer school staff, parents and students worry about the new federal education law

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
A class at Brooklyn Frontiers High School

Jamie Hawkins marched to the front of a Brooklyn auditorium Tuesday night holding two pieces of paper.

One had information from her son’s Individualized Education Program, which showed that when he entered high school, he read at a second-grade level and did math at a sixth-grade level. The other, she said proudly, proved he graduated from high school.

The reason her son finished school is he attended Brooklyn Frontiers High School, she said, one of several schools in New York City designed specifically for students who have fallen behind.

“He got the skills that he needed,” she explained after her testimony. When asked if he would have graduated without Brooklyn Frontiers she said, “No. Absolutely not.”

Students, teachers and parents from the city’s transfer high schools — which serve students who are over-age and under-credited — crowded into the Prospect Heights Educational Campus on Tuesday for a hearing on the Every Student Succeeds Act, which they fear will treat their schools unfairly.

These schools present a conundrum for state officials. The new law requires that schools with graduation rates under 67 percent are targeted for improvement. But for transfer schools, many people testified at the hearing, that is often an unrealistic standard.

“The language of this legislation, the ESSA legislation, puts our schools in grave danger,” said Rachel Forsyth, director of partnership schools at Good Shepherd Services, a nonprofit that works in multiple transfer schools.

So what will happen to transfer schools under New York’s draft ESSA plan? Are they really in danger? Here’s what we found out:

What does the plan currently say?

The state’s draft plan does not separate the way it evaluates transfer schools from how it judges traditional high schools — but it does gives all high schools some wiggle room.

Instead of using on-time (four-year) graduation rates, the state allows six-year graduation rates in its draft plan. That might not be enough for transfer schools, though. The average six-year graduation rate for transfer schools is 46.7 percent.

If a school does not meet a six-year graduation rate of 67 percent, it will be identified as a school that needs improvement.

Can the state make an exception for transfer schools under the law?

The state says all high schools have to reach a 67 percent graduation rate. Based on information the state’s education department has received from the U.S. Department of Education, there is no exemption for transfer high schools, state officials said.

But advocates say the law offers more leeway. Under the regulations approved by former U.S. Education Secretary John King, schools that serve special populations — such as alternative schools — were permitted to use different metrics than traditional high schools.

Those regulations have been undone by Congress, but the fact that they existed before shows the law allows that flexibility, said Ian Rosenblum, executive director of EdTrust-NY.

“We believe that the state can and should propose a different methodology for identifying specialized schools, such as transfer schools,” Rosenblum said.

What will happen if transfer schools are identified for improvement?

At one point during the hearing, a transfer school advocate gestured to the crowd and declared that if this plan moves forward, all the transfer schools represented in the room would soon cease to exist.

That is very unlikely to come to pass. Even if a school is identified as needing improvement, it would probably be several years before it could face any serious consequences under the new law, according to the state’s draft.

If a school is identified for Comprehensive School Improvement (CSI), it has three years to receive extra support and to implement an improvement plan. Then, it could be put into the state’s receivership program, which means it would likely have another two years to demonstrate improvement. If it does not demonstrate enough improvement, it risks being taken over by an outside receiver.

The state has already proven itself lenient in forcing an independent receiver on schools. So far, only one school in New York state has been threatened with takeover. According to state officials, once schools are in receivership, the state education commissioner has some flexibility in tracking their progress and determining whether schools should still be deemed struggling.

Still, any threat looms large for transfer schools, whose advocates say even if the worst-case scenario never plays out, they are still being rated by unfair metrics.

“We’re already working with kids who have been told repeatedly they are failures. Now we’re looking at a system where 90 percent of the [transfer] schools in the city will be looked at as failing schools,” Forsyth said. “I don’t think it’s really understanding the population we’re working with.”

State officials said they are aware of these concerns and will work to come up with a solution.