another round

Cuomo says Common Core ‘must be fixed,’ will begin (another) review process

PHOTO: Kevin P. Coughlin-Office of the Governor/Flickr
Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo at a press conference in 2014.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued another sharp critique of New York’s implementation of new learning standards on Thursday, saying he understood the concerns of parents who opted their children out of taking state tests and would convene another group to examine the Common Core.

In a lengthy statement, Cuomo said he will task a team of advisors to review policies tied to the Common Core standards and make recommendations by January — in time for him to direct another round of legislative changes to state education policy. The announcement comes as political pressure has mounted on state officials to address its opt-out movement, which grew to one in five eligible students this year.

“The fact is that the current Common Core program in New York is not working, and must be fixed,” Cuomo said. “To that end, the time has come for a comprehensive review of the implementation of the Common Core Standards, curriculum, guidance and tests in order to address local concerns.”

It’s unclear how this review of the Common Core will differ from the one Cuomo convened in 2014, or a separate review being directed by new State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia. Spokeswoman Melissa DeRosa said the goal will be to “pass a new law that revamps the system” with input from school administrators, teachers, parents, legislators, and the State Education Commissioner.

Cuomo said he was responding to growing rancor from parents who oppose the state’s testing policies. After adopting the standards in 2010, New York rushed ahead of many states in tying its standardized math and English exams to the standards in 2013 and simultaneously introducing a new teacher-evaluation system that used student test results. Critics have said the state moved too quickly, providing too little training for teachers, botching textbook deliveries to schools, and not communicating clearly enough with families.

Cuomo — who was governor during that transition — criticized the State Education Department but steered clear of pointing a finger at Elia, saying she has “inherited this problem” and acknowledging her efforts to meet with state testing opponents.

But Cuomo implied that comments Elia has made since taking over the department, including saying teachers who encouraged the opt-out movement were “unethical,” have done little to reduce frustration.

“We must have standards for New York’s students, but those standards will only work if people – especially parents – have faith in them and in their ability to educate our children,” Cuomo said. “The current Common Core program does not do that. It must.”

In response, Elia said she was moving forward with her own review because “it’s the right thing to do for our students” and that she looked forward to input from the governor’s commission.

The statement created a rare moment of unity between the governor and the city teachers union. “We’ll be happy to work with the new group to help fix the problems created by the Common Core rollout and to help restore the public’s faith in state education policy,” United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said in a statement.

Cuomo has often convened education commissions and panels to exert influence over the State Education Department, which is overseen by the 17-member Board of Regents, not his office. In 2012, the governor tapped an “education reform commission” whose recommendations spurred a series of competitive grants for districts.

Cuomo tapped a “Common Core panel” in the winter of 2014, as calls mounted for the state to pause tying state test results to consequences for students and teachers. The panel included Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan, Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, IBM executive and former deputy city schools chancellor Stan Litow, and some teachers, including New York City teacher Nick Lawrence. A few months later they released a report that called for an end to a student data warehousing initiative and less test preparation, but did not call for changes to teacher evaluations.

Here is the governor’s full statement:

“There has been an ongoing discussion about Common Core Standards nationwide, and in this state as well. I have said repeatedly my position is that while I agree with the goal of Common Core Standards, I believe the implementation by the State Education Department (SED) has been deeply flawed. The more time goes on, the more I am convinced of this position.

“A growing chorus of experts have questioned the intelligence of SED’s Common Core program and objective educators across the state have found the implementation problematic, to say the least. The new Commissioner of Education has inherited this problem and I understand has been meeting with parents, educators and students, and has heard the same concerns. Recently, SED has made comments about organized efforts to have parents choose to opt out of standardized tests. While I understand the issue and SED’s valid concern, I sympathize with the frustration of the parents.

“We must have standards for New York’s students, but those standards will only work if people – especially parents – have faith in them and in their ability to educate our children. The current Common Core program does not do that. It must.

“The fact is that the current Common Core program in New York is not working, and must be fixed. To that end, the time has come for a comprehensive review of the implementation of the Common Core Standards, curriculum, guidance and tests in order to address local concerns. I am taking this action not because I don’t believe in standards, but because I do.

“In the past, I employed an Education Commission to make substantive, unbiased recommendations on reforms to our education system. It has worked very well. I will ask a representative group from that Commission, including education experts, teachers, parents, the Commissioner of Education and legislative representatives to review the issues raised above and provide recommendations in time for my State of the State Address in January.”

test prep

To test or not to test? That’s the question families face as students head into state exams this week

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Starting this week, thousands of New York City students in grades 3-8 will sit for the state’s controversial standardized tests — a gauge of student progress that has become an educational lightning rod in recent years.

Across the state, parents have been opting their students out of the tests in record numbers to protest what they say is an educational culture too focused on test preparation. Statewide, the percentage of students opting out was 21 percent last year, while the city’s rate was much lower at less than 3 percent refusing to sit for exams, an uptick from the year before.

Testing protests contributed to a larger sea change in education policy, including the state’s decision to revise the Common Core learning standards and stop using grades 3-8 math and English test scores in teacher evaluations. Officials also made some changes to the tests last year, including shortening them and providing students with unlimited time.

So what’s new this year? State Education Department officials announced this November they would not make significant changes to exams this year in order to allow for stable year-over-year comparisons.

Some supporters of opt-out, including the chair of the City Council’s education committee, Daniel Dromm, are pushing for families to know their rights about refusing the test. The state education commissioner has said parents need to make their own choices on the matter.

“It’s up to parents to decide if their children should take the tests,” State Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said in a statement. “We want them to have the all the facts so they can make an informed decision.”

Here’s what you need to know as students start taking English exams on Tuesday.

How much do state tests matter — and what are they used for?

  • They matter less than they once did, but Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has cited test scores as one of many factors the city uses to determine whether a school should close.
  • State policymakers have decided that grades 3-8 math and English exam scores will no longer count in teacher evaluations.
  • Meanwhile, the city has reduced the tests’ influence on school ratings and decisions about whether students move on to the next grade.
  • The state is is currently deciding how test scores will be used to judge schools under the Every Student Succeeds Act, a new federal education law. There is no official plan yet, but early signs indicate policymakers want to use much more than just state test scores.

Why are state tests so controversial?

  • When the state adopted new Common Core-aligned standards, the tests became more difficult to pass, just as the stakes for teachers and schools grew.
  • The state began tying teacher evaluations to test scores.
  • Critics argue teachers have been forced to narrow their curriculum to focus on test preparation.
  • Many teachers are frustrated by the continued emphasis on testing. Others see the tests as helpful to gauging student progress.

What has the state changed in recent years?

  • The tests were slightly shorter last year.
  • Students were also allotted unlimited time to complete them last year — a change meant to reduce student stress.
  • State test scores in English leapt after last year’s changes. Elia said that meant the scores could not be compared “apples-to-apples” to the year before, but city officials still celebrated the scores with little mention of the changes.
  • That led some to ask, how should we use the scores? And what does it mean for evaluating struggling schools?
  • Since 2015, a greater number of teachers have been involved in reviewing test questions, state officials said.
  • In November, state officials announced they did not plan to make significant changes to the tests this year. (First, they announced they would keep the tests stable for two years, but then backed off that decision the next day.)

What’s up with the opt-out movement?

  • Last year, opt-out percentages were 21 percent statewide, fairly flat from the year before.
  • Though much smaller, the number of families sitting out of exams in New York City did increase substantially. In 2016, 2.4 percent of city students sat out the English exams — a 71 percent jump over 2015. And 2.76 percent opted out of math, a 53 percent spike.
  • Statewide, opt-out students in 2015 were more likely to be white and less likely to be poor, and liberal areas in Brooklyn and Manhattan saw the city’s highest opt-out numbers.
  • Leaders of the the opt-out movement want to broaden their approach to state politics. Nationally, a recent study found that many members of the movement aren’t parents at all, but teachers and education advocates.
  • Despite the changes enacted last year, opt-out advocates aren’t satisfied. They still want substantially shorter tests with no consequences for schools, teachers or students.
  • A federal mandate says 95 percent of students must take state tests, but New York state officials indicated last year they did not plan to withhold funding for schools or districts that break that rule. Elia reiterated that point to Chalkbeat at a recent Board of Regents meeting, saying she has no desire to do so now or in the future.

more tweaks

For third straight year, TNReady prompts Tennessee to adjust teacher evaluation formula

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen announced last April that she was suspending TNReady testing for grades 3-8 for the 2015-16 school year. Now, her department is asking lawmakers to make more adjustments to the weight of student test scores in Tennessee's teacher evaluation formula.

First, Tennessee asked lawmakers to make temporary changes to its teacher evaluations in anticipation of switching to a new test, called TNReady.

Then, TNReady’s online platform failed, and the state asked lawmakers to tweak the formula once more.

Now, the State Department of Education is asking for another change in response to last year’s test cancellation, which occurred shortly after the legislative session concluded.

Under a proposal scheduled for consideration next Monday by the full House, student growth from TNReady would count for only 10 percent of teachers’ evaluation scores and 20 percent next school year. That’s compared to the 35 to 50 percent, depending on the subject, that test scores counted in 2014-15 before the state switched to its more rigorous test.

The bill, carried by Rep. Eddie Smith of Knoxville, is meant to address teachers’ concerns about being evaluated by a brand new test.

Because testing was cancelled for grades 3-8 last spring, many students are taking the new test this year for the first time.

“If we didn’t have this phase-in … there wouldn’t be a relief period for teachers,” said Elizabeth Fiveash, assistant commissioner of policy. “We are trying to acknowledge that we’re moving to a new assessment and a new type of assessment.”

The proposal also mandates that TNReady scores count for only 10 percent of student grades this year, and for 15 to 25 percent by 2018-19.

The Tennessee Education Association has advocated to scrap student test scores from teacher evaluations altogether, but its lobbyist, Jim Wrye, told lawmakers on Tuesday that the organization appreciates slowing the process yet again.

“We think that limiting it to 10 percent this year is a wise policy,” he said.

To incorporate test scores into teacher evaluations, Tennessee uses TVAAS, a formula that’s supposed to show how much teachers contributed to individual student growth. TVAAS, which is short for the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, was designed to be based on three years of testing. Last year’s testing cancellation, though, means many teachers will be scored on only two years of data, a sore point for the TEA.

“Now we have a missing link in that data,” Wrye said. “We are very keenly interested in seeing what kind of TVAAS scores that are generated from this remarkable experience.”

Although TVAAS, in theory, measures a student’s growth, it really measures how a student does relative to his or her peers. The state examines how students who have scored at the same levels on prior assessments perform on the latest test. Students are expected to perform about as well on TNReady as their peers with comparable prior achievement in previous years. If they perform better, they will positively impact their teacher’s score.

Using test scores to measure teachers’ growth has been the source of other debates around evaluations.

Historically, teachers of non-tested subjects such as physical education or art have been graded in part by schoolwide test scores. The House recently passed a bill that would require the state to develop other ways to measure growth for those teachers, and it is now awaiting passage by the Senate.