talking testing

Opt-out movement unlikely to provoke sanctions from state, this time around

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
A protest in 2014 at P.S. 321 in Park Slope against the state English exams.

In less than two months, students across New York state will pick up their pencils and sit for math and English state assessments.

But what will the state do if, like last year, thousands of families decide that their kids will refuse to take the tests?

This year, it appears the answer is nothing. Though a federal mandate that 95 percent of students take state assessments still applies to New York, members of the Board of Regents indicated this week they are not inclined to impose sanctions on schools or districts with a low participation rates. They are, however, looking to craft a long-term plan.

“We made a statement that we would not withhold funds from districts,” Chancellor Merryl Tisch said Monday about the board’s position last year. “I don’t see this language as being any different than what our response was originally.”

The discussion comes after 20 percent of students statewide opted out of taking the assessments last year in an unprecedented rejection of state policy. Since then, the state education department has been under pressure from federal officials, and New York’s new education commissioner has embarked on a mission to convince more families to take the tests.

Instead of threatening sanctions, Commissioner MaryEllen Elia has preferred to address concerns about the tests themselves. She announced that the exams would be shorter, and that students would have unlimited time to complete them to help alleviate pressure. She has also toured the state to spread her message to parents.

“Much of what I heard as I went across the state was that, in fact, parents didn’t know some of the information that might influence them,” Elia said.

Whether that will make a difference remains to be seen. But the state has more time to create a system that enforces the 95 percent participation rule under the new federal education law. The law allows states to decide the consequences when enough students don’t participate, but it doesn’t take effect until the 2016-17 school year. In the meantime, state officials say they want to think carefully about a long-term plan.

Developing that plan is “very challenging,” said Ira Schwartz, New York’s assistant state education commissioner. On the one hand, the state wants to avoid allowing schools and districts to manipulate data by helping low-performing students avoid the test under the guise of opting out. On the other hand, he said, the state does not want to penalize schools that are doing well because a cohort of families chooses not to take the test.

Though Regents are wary of cracking down on their own this year, New York still faces the threat of federal sanctions. The state education department received a letter from the U.S. Department of Education in December warning that it could be in for a reduction in funding for failure to comply with the law.

It is unclear how serious these threats are. Elia said that the letter shouldn’t be taken lightly, but said that she hopes her efforts to tweak the tests and communicate with parents will be enough to secure funding.

“We’re talking about considerable lack of funds if in fact they chose to do that,” Elia said about the threats of federal sanctions. “I don’t think they will.”

Opt-out leaders have said they are not satisfied with the changes that Elia has made. They have promised to continue boycotting state tests, and expect the movement to grow this year.

If the opt-out movement does remain a force, and the federal government decides to pull funding it controls, it could affect the state’s neediest schools, Regent Beverly Ouderkirk noted Monday, since schools with a large share of low-income students rely on federal Title I funding.

For now, schools will be receiving mixed messages, Regent Betty Rosa acknowledged.

“They’re caught between a law and mandate, and parents who say they have this choice,” she said.

First Person

Two fewer testing days in New York? Thank goodness. Here’s what else our students need

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

Every April, I feel the tension in my fifth-grade classroom rise. Students are concerned that all of their hard work throughout the year will boil down to six intense days of testing — three for math and three for English language arts.

Students know they need to be prepared to sit in a room for anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours with no opportunity to leave, barring an emergency. Many of them are sick to their stomachs, feeling more stress than a 10-year-old ever should, and yet they are expected to perform their best.

Meanwhile, teachers are frustrated that so many hours of valuable instruction have been replaced by testing, and that the results won’t be available until students are moving on to other classrooms.

This is what testing looks like in New York state. Or, at least it did. Last month, state officials voted to reduce testing from three days for each subject to two, to the elation of students, parents, and teachers across New York. It’s an example of our voices being heard — but there is still more to be done to make the testing process truly useful, and less stressful, for all of us.

As a fifth-grade teacher in the Bronx, I was thrilled by the news that testing time would be reduced. Though it doesn’t seem like much on paper, having two fewer days of gut-wrenching stress for students as young as eight means so much for their well-being and education. It gives students two more days of classroom instruction, interactive lessons, and engagement in thought-provoking discussions. Any reduction in testing also means more time with my students, since administrators can pull teachers out of their classrooms for up to a week to score each test.

Still, I know these tests provide us with critical data about how students are doing across our state and where we need to concentrate our resources. The changes address my worries about over-testing, while still ensuring that we have an objective measure of what students have learned across the state.

For those who fear that cutting one-third of the required state testing hours will not provide teachers with enough data to help our students, understand that we assess them before, during, and after each unit of study, along with mid-year tests and quizzes. It is unlikely that one extra day of testing will offer any significant additional insights into our students’ skills.

Also, the fact that we receive students’ state test results months later, at the end of June, means that we are more likely to have a snapshot of where are students were, rather than where they currently are — when it’s too late for us to use the information to help them.

That’s where New York can still do better. Teachers need timely data to tailor their teaching to meet student needs. As New York develops its next generation of tests and academic standards, we must ensure that they are developmentally appropriate. And officials need to continue to emphasize that state tests alone cannot fully assess a student’s knowledge and skills.

For this, parents and teachers must continue to demand that their voices are heard. Until then, thank you, New York Regents, for hearing us and reducing the number of testing days.

In my classroom, I’ll have two extra days to help my special needs students work towards the goals laid out in their individualized education plans. I’ll take it.

Rich Johnson teaches fifth grade at P.S. 105 in the Bronx.

a failure of accountability

High-stakes testing may push struggling teachers to younger grades, hurting students

PHOTO: Justin Weiner

Kindergarten, first grade, and second grade are often free of the high-stakes testing common in later grades — but those years are still high-stakes for students’ learning and development.

That means it’s a big problem when schools encourage their least effective teachers to work with their youngest students. And a new study says that the pressure of school accountability systems may be encouraging exactly that.

“Evidence on the importance of early-grades learning for later life outcomes suggests that a system that pushes schools to concentrate ineffective teachers in the earliest grades could have serious unintended consequences,” write study authors Jason Grissom of Vanderbilt and Demetra Kalogrides and Susanna Loeb of Stanford.

The research comes at an opportune time. All 50 states are in the middle of crafting new systems designed to hold schools accountable for student learning. And this is just the latest study to point out just how much those systems matter — for good and for ill.

The study, published earlier this month in the peer-reviewed American Educational Research Journal, focuses on Miami-Dade County schools, the fourth-largest district in the country, from 2003 to 2014. Florida had strict accountability rules during that period, including performance-based letter grades for schools. (Those policies have been promoted as a national model by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and his national education reform outfit, where Education Secretary Betsy DeVos previously served on the board.)

The trio of researchers hypothesized that because Florida focuses on the performance of students in certain grades and subjects — generally third through 10th grade math and English — less-effective teachers would get shunted to other assignments, like early elementary grades or social studies.

That’s exactly what they found.

In particular, elementary teachers effective at raising test scores tended to end up teaching grades 3-6, while lower-performing ones moved toward early grades.

While that may have helped schools look better, it didn’t help students. Indeed, the study finds that being assigned a teacher in early elementary school who switched from a higher grade led to reduced academic achievement, effects that persisted through at least third grade.

The impact was modest in size, akin to being assigned a novice teacher as opposed to a more experienced one.

The study is limited in that it focuses on just a single district, albeit a very large one — a point the authors acknowledge. Still, the results are consistent with past research in North Carolina and Florida as a whole, and district leaders elsewhere have acknowledged responding to test pressure in the same way.

“There was once upon a time that, when the test was only grades 3 through 12, we put the least effective teachers in K-2,” schools chief Sharon Griffin of Shelby County schools in Memphis said earlier this year. “We can’t do that anymore. We’re killing third grade and then we have students who get in third grade whose challenges are so great, they never ever catch up.”

While the Florida study can’t definitively link the migration of teachers to the state’s accountability system, evidence suggests that it was a contributing factor.

For one, the pattern is more pronounced in F-rated schools, which face the greatest pressure to raise test scores. The pattern is also stronger when principals have more control over staffing decisions — consistent with the idea that school leaders are moving teachers around with accountability systems in mind.

Previous research of policies like No Child Left Behind that threaten to sanction schools with low test scores have found both benefits and downsides. On the positive side, accountability can lead to higher achievement on low-stakes exams and improved instruction; studies of Florida’s system, in particular, have found a number of positive effects. On the negative side, high-stakes testing has caused cheating, teaching to the test, and suspensions of students unlikely to test well.

So how can districts avoid the unintended consequences for young students documented by the Miami-Dade study?

One idea is to emphasize student proficiency in third grade, a proxy for how well schools have taught kids in kindergarten, first and second grades.

Scholars generally say that focusing on progress from year to year is a better gauge of school effectiveness than student proficiency. But a heavily growth-based system could actually give schools an incentive to lower student achievement in early grades.

“These results do make an argument for weighting [proficiency] in those early tests to essentially guard against totally ignoring those early grades,” said Grissom, who also noted that states could make more efforts to directly measure performance of the youngest students.

But Morgan Polikoff, an associate professor at the University of Southern California, was more skeptical of this approach.

“It’s not as if states are going to add grades K-2 testing, so schools and districts will always have this incentive (or think they do),” he told Chalkbeat in an email. “I think measurement is always going to be an issue in those early grades.”