testing testing

Opt-out leaders to New York: Your testing changes don’t appease us

PHOTO: Justin Weiner
A rally against high-stakes testing at Brooklyn New School and the Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies in 2015.

The parents who organized a record-breaking boycott of state tests last year say the commissioner’s latest effort to alter state tests is not nearly enough.

In response to widespread criticism of state assessments, Commissioner MaryEllen Elia last week announced several changes to the state’s testing program. Those changes include giving more educators a role in drafting tests and reducing test pressure and length— key goals of the “opt-out” movement — by reducing the number of questions and letting students take as long as they need to finish.

But opt-out leaders said what appears to be a major policy shift is really a set of minor tweaks designed to appease parents without addressing the concerns that caused 20 percent of them to have their children sit out last year’s exams. Without further changes, opt-out leaders say they will continue to convince parents across the state not to let their children take the tests.

“It’s the non-change changes,” said Lisa Rudley, a founding member of the New York State Allies for Public Education, about the testing concessions Elia made last week. Elia “is still talking about it as if the tests are all good and it’s really a communication problem,” Rudley said.

The commissioner’s policies are based on conversations with thousands of New Yorkers and consistent with the recommendations in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Common Core task force report, according to state education department officials. They said it would be a mistake to move more quickly.

“These are just some of the steps the Regents and the commissioner are taking to ensure our students receive the education they’re entitled to,” said Jonathan Burman, a spokesman for the state education department. “This is critically important work and we will take the necessary time to make sure we listen and get it right.”

Opt-out leaders said each of the changes Elia announced last week falls short of what’s needed.

Giving students unlimited time runs counter to opt-out’s goal of reducing the duration of tests, Brooklyn teacher Jessica Klonsky said on Facebook in response to a Chalkbeat story about the changes.

“This is a pretty useless response to the opt-out movement,” Klonsky wrote. “People were not opting their children out of the tests because they didn’t have enough time to take them. They opted out because the tests and their preparation take up too much time as it is. Now they are going to take up more time!”

Unlimited time on tests could make for a logistical nightmare, said Michael Reilly, the president of Community Education Council 31 in Staten Island who has advertised his own decision to opt his children out of state tests and has applied for the open at-large seat on the Board of Regents. If some students are still working while others are finished, teachers will have to oversee both groups of students and find a quiet place for students still taking the test, he said.

Eliminating a few test questions is a small dent in a system that forces elementary school students to take six full days of exams, Rudley said. Instead, she said she would like to see only one day of testing for each subject with about 45 minutes for each test.

And Reilly noted that while educator involvement is a good thing, the state’s guidance is not specific about how many teachers will work to revamp each test.

“I think she’s trying to put a bandaid on the issues that parents and educators have raised,” Reilly said. “This is one attempt to appease parents. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s well thought out.”

The movement is finding an ally in the state teachers union, which is also pressing Elia to move more quickly in overhauling the state’s testing program. In a letter sent Friday, NYSUT urged Elia to reduce the number of days dedicated to testing and push the tests later in the school year.

“The department should not pass up this opportunity to make meaningful change in the testing system and restore the confidence of teachers, parents, and students,” reads the letter, signed by NYSUT Vice President Catalina Fortino.

Not everyone is a harsh critic of Elia’s policies. Many defended her testing changes as the first steps towards broader reform.

Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, said most superintendents believe Elia’s announcement is a “good faith effort” to change broken testing practices and that moving any faster would be dangerous.

“We got into all these things over a period of years, in part, by rushing into things,” Lowry said about the current state tests, “so let’s not make the same mistake in trying to repair the damage caused by our earlier mistakes.”

Jay Worona, the deputy executive director and general counsel for the New York State School Boards Association, said both the commissioner’s defense and the opt-out leaders’ reactions are understandable.

“The commissioner is saying, ‘Please work with me. Don’t assume that the status quo is going to be preserved forever,’” Worona said. On the other hand, the opt-leaders and supporters are thinking, “If we don’t keep this pressure on, we don’t really believe that these changes are going to occur,” he said.

Indeed, opt-out leaders have pledged to keep fighting until state tests meet their standards.

“Parents will not be opting back in until the tests are appropriate,” Rudley said. “Parents will still continue to opt out.”

TNReady snag

Tennessee’s ill-timed score delivery undercuts work to rebuild trust in tests

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
The Tennessee Department of Education worked with local districts and schools to prepare students for TNReady, the state's standardized test that debuted in 2016.

After last year’s online testing failure, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen pledged to rebuild trust in Tennessee’s new TNReady assessment, a lynchpin of the state’s system of school accountability.

A year later, frustration over TNReady has re-emerged, even after a mostly uneventful spring testing period that McQueen declared a success just weeks ago.

Preliminary TNReady scores are supposed to count for 10 percent of students’ final grades. But as many districts end the school year this week, the state’s data is arriving too late. One by one, school systems have opted to exclude the scores, while some plan to issue their report cards late.

The flurry of end-of-school adjustments has left local administrators to explain the changes to parents, educators and students who are already wary of state testing. And the issue has put Tennessee education officials back on the defensive as the state works to regain its footing on testing after last year’s high-profile setbacks.

“We just need to get more crisp as a state,” said Superintendent Dorsey Hopson after Shelby County Schools joined the growing list of districts opting to leave out the scores. “If we know that we want to use (TNReady scores), if the state says use them on the report card, then we got to get them back.”

The confusion represents one step back for TNReady, even after the state took two steps forward this spring with a mostly smooth second year of testing under Questar, its new test maker. Last year, McQueen canceled testing for grades 3-8 and fired Measurement Inc. after Tennessee’s online platform failed and a string of logistical problems ensued.

Why TNReady’s failed rollout leaves Tennessee with challenges for years to come

But the reason this year’s testing went more smoothly may also be the reason why the scores haven’t arrived early enough for many districts.

TNReady was mostly administered on paper this time around, which meant materials had to be processed, shipped and scored before the early data could be shared with districts. About 600,000 students took the assessment statewide.

After testing ended on May 5, districts had five days to get their materials to Questar to go to the front of the line for return of preliminary scores. Not all districts succeeded, and some had problems with shipping. Through it all, the State Department of Education has maintained that its timelines are “on track.”

McQueen said Wednesday that districts have authority under a 2015 state law to exclude the scores from students’ final grades if the data doesn’t arrive a week before school lets out. And with 146 districts that set their own calendars, “the flexibility provided under this law is very important.”

Next year will be better, she says, as Tennessee moves more students to online testing, beginning with high school students.

Candice McQueen

“We lose seven to 10 days for potential scoring time just due to shipping and delivery,” she said of paper tests. “Online, those challenges are eliminated because the materials can be uploaded immediately and transferred much much quicker.”

The commissioner emphasized that the data that matters most is not the preliminary data but the final score reports, which are scheduled for release in July for high schools and the fall for grades 3-8. Those scores are factored into teachers’ evaluations and are also used to measure the effectiveness of schools and districts. 

“Not until you get the score report will you have the full context of a student’s performance level and strengths and weaknesses in relation to the standards,” she said.

The early data matters to districts, though, since Tennessee has tied the scores to student grades since 2011.

“Historically, we know that students don’t try as hard when the tests don’t count,” said Jennifer Johnson, a spokeswoman for Wilson County Schools, a district outside of Nashville that opted to issue report cards late. “We’re trying to get our students into the mindset that tests do matter, that this means business.”

Regardless, this year’s handling of early scores has left many parents and educators confused, some even exasperated.

“There’s so much time and stress on students, and here again it’s not ready,” said Tikeila Rucker, a Memphis teacher who is president of the United Education Association of Shelby County.

“The expectation is that we would have the scores back,” Hopson agreed.

But Hopson, who heads Tennessee’s largest district in Memphis, also is taking the long view.

“It’s a new test and a new process and I’m sure the state is trying to figure it all out,” he said. “Obviously the process was better this year than last year.”

Laura Faith Kebede and Caroline Bauman contributed to this report.

Not Ready

Memphis students won’t see TNReady scores reflected in their final report cards

PHOTO: Creative Commons / timlewisnm

Shelby County Schools has joined the growing list of Tennessee districts that won’t factor preliminary state test scores into students’ final grades this year.

The state’s largest school district didn’t receive raw score data in time, a district spokeswoman said Tuesday.

The State Department of Education began sharing the preliminary scores this week, too late in the school year for many districts letting out in the same week. That includes Shelby County Schools, which dismisses students on Friday.

While a state spokeswoman said the timelines are “on track,” Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the timing was unfortunate.

“There’s a lot of discussion about too many tests, and I think anytime you have a situation where you advertise the tests are going to be used for one thing and then we don’t get the data back, it becomes frustrating for students and families. But that’s not in our control,” he said Tuesday night.

Hopson added that the preliminary scores will still get used eventually, but just not in students’ final grades. “As we get the data and as we think about our strategy, we’ll just make adjustments and try to use them appropriately,” he said.

The decision means that all four of Tennessee’s urban districts in Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga won’t include TNReady in all of their students’ final grades. Other school systems, such as in Williamson and Wilson counties, plan to make allowances by issuing report cards late, and Knox County will do the same for its high school students.

Under a 2015 state law, districts can leave out standardized test scores if the information doesn’t arrive five instructional days before the end of the school year. This year, TNReady is supposed to count for 10 percent of final grades.

Also known as “quick scores,” the data is different from the final test scores that will be part of teachers’ evaluation scores. The state expects to release final scores for high schoolers in July and for grades 3-8 in the fall.

The Department of Education has been working with testing company Questar to gather and score TNReady since the state’s testing window ended on May 5. About 600,000 students took the assessment statewide in grades 3-11.

State officials could not provide a district-by-district listing of when districts will receive their scores.

“Scores will continue to come out on a rolling basis, with new data released every day, and districts will receive scores based on their timely return of testing materials and their completion of the data entry process,” spokeswoman Sara Gast told Chalkbeat on Monday. “Based on district feedback, we have prioritized returning end-of-course data to districts first.”

Caroline Bauman and Laura Faith Kebede contributed to this report.