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.”

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.

early adopters

Here are the 25 districts committing to taking TNReady online this spring

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

One year after Tennessee’s first attempt at online testing fizzled, 25 out of 140 Tennessee school districts have signed up to try again.

About 130 districts were eligible to test online this year.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said Thursday the number is what she expected as districts prepare to administer the state’s TNReady assessment in April.

Although all districts will make the switch to online testing by 2019 for middle and high school students, they had the option to forge ahead this year with their oldest students.

The Department of Education is staggering its transition to online testing — a lesson learned last year when most of the state tried to do it all at once and the online platform buckled on the first day. As a result, the department fired its testing company, derailing the state’s assessment program, and later hired  Questar as its new test maker.

Districts piloted Questar’s online platform last fall, and had until Wednesday to decide whether to forge ahead with online testing for their high school students this spring or opt for paper-and-pencil tests.

McQueen announced the state’s new game plan for TNReady testing in January and said she is confident that the new platform will work.

While this year was optional for high schools, all high schools will participate in 2018. Middle and elementary schools will make the switch in 2019, though districts will have the option of administering the test on paper to its youngest students.

Districts opting in this spring are:

  • Alvin C. York Institute
  • Bedford County
  • Bledsoe County
  • Blount County
  • Bristol City
  • Campbell County
  • Cannon County
  • Cheatham County
  • Clay County
  • Cocke County
  • Coffee County
  • Cumberland County
  • Grundy County
  • Hamilton County
  • Hancock County
  • Knox County
  • Jackson-Madison County
  • Moore County
  • Morgan County
  • Putnam County
  • Scott County
  • Sullivan County
  • Trousdale County
  • Washington County
  • Williamson County