Recommended Fixes

Gov. Cuomo’s Common Core task force calls for evaluation freeze, test changes

PHOTO: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of the Governor
Gov. Andrew Cuomo pushed for a broad overhaul of state education policy last year.

The governor’s Common Core task force has proposed overhauling the Common Core standards and pausing test-based teacher evaluations, paving the way for significant changes to policies that have dominated state education for years.

The recommendations were part of a report, released Thursday afternoon, that reflects parent and educator concerns about state tests, evaluations, and the rollout of the standards that have been brewing for years. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has pushed for tough academic standards and teacher ratings tied to test scores, has said he will pay close attention to the group’s recommendations — indicating that he is ready to back a broad shift in the state’s education policies.

“The Common Core was supposed to ensure all of our children had the education they needed to be college and career-ready — but it actually caused confusion and anxiety,” Cuomo said in a statement. “That ends now.”

The Common Core standards are lists of math and reading skills that students must master by the end of each grade. They form the basis for the state’s annual tests, which have grown increasingly unpopular: This year, one in five students across the state refused to take them.

The report calls for the standards to be revised in a limited way, with plenty of teacher input and adjustments to the standards aimed at the state’s youngest students. It also nods to concerns that the state has already begun to address about the content of tests and the time students spend taking them.

Its most dramatic suggestion, though, is a freeze until 2019 on factoring students’ state test scores into teachers’ ratings — the focus of years of policy wrangling that resulted in a revamped teacher-evaluation system that was introduced in 2013. Earlier this year, Cuomo successfully pushed for the scores to weigh more heavily in the ratings. If he accepts the recommendation, Cuomo will be making a significant retreat from his earlier position.

The proposal to pull back from test-based ratings marks a major victory for teachers unions, who have long argued that the tests are an unreliable measure of teacher performance.

“It validates what we have been saying for years,” United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said of the report, adding that Thursday was a “historical day.”

Whether the recommendations become reality is up to the state Board of Regents, which sets education policy. But Cuomo has indicated that he will heed the suggestions, which he said Thursday could be adopted without making changes to state law.

“It seems for the most part, the ball is now in the education department’s court and they are already at work on some of these ideas,” said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

The report does not call for replacing the standards, which the state adopted in 2010 as it began a fast-moving series of policy changes sparked by a $700 million federal “Race to the Top” grant. That gave Common Core supporters a minor victory to celebrate Thursday.

“The report makes clear that the current standards and assessments will stay in place,” said Stephen Sigmund, the executive director of High Achievement New York, a coalition of groups that promote the standards.

The report proposes a number of changes to the standards, such as making them more age-appropriate for young students and letting parents and teachers review them on a regular basis. For the assessments, it suggests reducing test time, publishing more of the test questions, and giving additional leeway to students with disabilities.

New York joins several states in backing away from the Common Core. A number of states have reviewed, renamed, or tweaked the standards, and a few have completely dropped them.

However, most of the reviews did not yield significant changes, said Morgan Polikoff, an assistant professor of education at USC’s Rossier School of Education.

“There’s been a number of states now that have done this kind of review and I think unanimously, the outcome has been relatively modest tweaks of the actual content of the standards,” Polikoff said.

Cuomo appointed the 15-member task force in September, partly in response to the unprecedented wave of testing opposition this spring. At that time, he called the state’s Common Core’s roll out “deeply flawed” and pledged to consider the committee’s recommendations when setting his agenda for next year’s legislative session.

The task force was comprised of educators and advocates from around the state, including New York State Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. The group spent three months collecting public testimony and reviewing written comments, ultimately consulting about 2,100 people, according to Cuomo’s office.

Still, a full reboot of standards would take far longer than was allotted to the task force, said Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow at the Fordham Institute who also works at Democracy Prep, a charter school in Harlem.

“Creating standards is not something that you do quickly, easily, overnight,” Pondiscio said.

The latest recommendations mirror ones proposed by Elia at last month’s Board of Regents meeting. The state education department said it received generally positive feedback on a survey it conducted of the standards, though some critics have questioned those findings.

Cuomo’s task force was not tasked with reviewing teacher evaluations, but during the process its members decided that the standards and assessments could not be separated from the evaluations, since they are based partly on test results.

New York introduced the Common Core-aligned tests in 2013, at the same time as the test-based evaluation system. That combination put significant pressure on teachers, who were suddenly judged based on standards that many said they were unprepared to teach.

In January, Cuomo again raised the stakes for teacher evaluations. Calling the current system “baloney,” he successfully pushed for a revised law that makes tests account for around 50 percent of teachers’ ratings.

By embracing the committee’s report, he is set to abandon the position he staked out earlier this year.

“Today, we will begin to transform our system,” Cuomo said in his statement Thursday, “into one that empowers parents, teachers, and local districts and ensures high standards for all students.”

Test tweaks

Tennessee will halve science and social studies tests for its youngest students

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen announced Wednesday plans to slim down science and social studies assessments for third- and fourth-graders as she seeks to respond to complaints of over-testing in Tennessee.

McQueen has been mulling over that option since meeting last summer with her testing task force. The State Department of Education received more public feedback on testing during the last eight months while developing the state’s new plan for its schools in response to a new federal education law.

Tennessee already has eliminated a state test for eighth- and tenth-graders, as well as shortened TNReady, the state’s end-of-year tests for math and reading.

It’s uncertain just how significant the latest reductions are, since McQueen also said that some “components” would be added to English tests in those grades.  

And the trimming, while significant, falls short of a suggestion to eliminate the tests altogether. Federal law does not require tests in science and social studies for those grades, like it does for math and English.

Parents and educators have become increasingly vocal about the amount of testing students are undergoing. The average Tennessee third-grader, for instance, currently spends more than 11 hours taking end-of-course tests in math, English, social studies and science. That doesn’t include practice tests and screeners through the state’s 3-year-old intervention program.

McQueen noted that more changes could be on the horizon. Her testing task force has also considered eliminating or reducing TNReady for 11th-graders because they already are required to take the ACT college-entrance exam. “We will continue to evaluate all of our options for streamlining assessments in the coming years, including in the 11th grade,” she wrote in a blog post.

McQueen also announced that the state is tweaking its schools plan to reduce the role that chronic absenteeism will play in school evaluation scores.

The federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires states to evaluate schools based off of a measure that’s not directly tied to test scores. Tennessee officials have selected chronic absenteeism, which is defined as missing 10 percent of school days for any reason, including absences or suspension. McQueen said the measure will be changed to count for 10 percent of a school’s final grade, down from 20 percent for K-8 schools and 15 percent for high schools.

Some local district officials had raised concerns that absenteeism was out of the control of schools.

Newcomers

This mom came to the newcomer school ready to stand up for son. She left with a job.

PHOTO: Provided by Javier Barrera Cervantes
Charlotte Uwimbabazi is a bilingual assistant at the Indianapolis Public Schools newcomer program.

When Charlotte Uwimbabazi showed up at Indianapolis Public Schools’ program for new immigrants, she was ready to fight for her son. When she left that day, she had a job.

A native of the Congo, Uwimbabazi fled the war-torn country and spent nearly a decade in Cape Town, South Africa waiting for a new home. Last spring, Uwimbabazi and her four children came to the U.S. as refugees.

(Read: Teaching when students are full of fear: Inside Indiana’s first school for new immigrants)

When the family arrived in Indianapolis, Uwimbabazi’s youngest son Dave enrolled at Northwest High School. But he wasn’t happy, and a volunteer helping to resettle the family suggested he transfer to Crispus Attucks High School. When the school year started, though, Crispus Attucks turned him away. Staff there said he had been assigned to the newcomer program, a school for students who are new to the country and still learning English.

There was just one problem: Dave was fluent in English after growing up in South Africa. Uwimbabazi said it’s the only language he knows. So Uwimbabazi and her son Dave headed to the newcomer school to convince them he should attend Crispus Attucks.

That’s when Jessica Feeser, who oversees the newcomer school and programing for IPS students learning English, stepped in — and found a new resource for the district’s growing population of newcomer students.

Feeser immediately realized that Dave was fluent in English and should enroll in Crispus Attucks. Then, Uwimbabazi started talking with Feeser about her own experience. With a gift for languages, Uwimbabazi speaks six fluently, including Swahili and Kinyarwanda, languages spoken by many African students at the school.

“Where are you working right now?” Feeser asked. “Would you like a job here?”

Uwimbabazi, who had been packing mail, took a job as a bilingual assistant at the school. Her interaction with the district went from “negativity to positivity,” she said.

The newcomer program has seen dramatic growth in enrollment since it opened last fall, and it serves about three dozen refugee students. Students at the school speak at least 14 different languages. As the only staff member at the school who speaks Swahili and Kinyarwanda, Uwimbabazi is a lifeline for many of the African refugees it serves, Feeser said.

She works alongside teachers, going over material in languages that students speak fluently and helping them grasp everything from simple instructions to complex concepts like graphing linear equations, Feeser said. She also helps bridge the divide between the district and the Congolese community on Indianapolis’ westside, going on home visits to meet parents and helping convince families to enroll their children in school.

When students in the newcomer program don’t share a language with staff members, the school is still able to educate them, Feeser said. But it is hard to build community without that bridge. Uwimbabazi has played an essential role in helping the school build relationships with families.

“She believes that all of our families are important, and she’s working diligently to make sure that they feel that their voices are heard,” Feeser said. “It was a gift from God that she joined us.”