testing 1-2-3

If state tests keep changing, should they still be used to judge struggling schools?

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Carmen Fariña

In a packed room of educators, New York City schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña announced that the city’s turnaround program for struggling schools is making extraordinary progress.

“I want to be clear,” Fariña said. “English proficiency … increased at 59 out of the 63 [Renewal] schools. Let me say this again, 59 out of 63 schools.”

Fariña is correct, but the state offered a more tempered assessment of the scores. On Friday, State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said changes to this year’s test, such as offering students unlimited time and asking fewer questions, meant last year’s scores were not an “apples-to-apples comparison” with last year’s.

Her statement underscores what critics see as a dilemma: As tests continue to change, how can officials judge yearly progress on major initiatives?

That question is particularly relevant to two high-profile programs for struggling schools — the state’s receivership program and the city’s “Renewal” school program — both of which carry penalties for underperforming schools and use test scores as one way to gauge student progress. Renewal schools are expected to show improvements between 2015 and 2017, but the test process has changed within that timeframe — and could change again next year.

“It’s like trying to judge the success of a weight loss program when you have three different scales that you can’t count on,” said Aaron Pallas, a professor of sociology and education at Teachers College at Columbia University.

City officials defended the comparison between 2015 and 2016 test results, saying the rigor of the exam remained the same this year, only the structure of the test changed. They also noted that multiple benchmarks will be used to evaluate “Renewal” schools, not just test scores.

“These tests are not easier,” Fariña said during a Monday press conference. “I want to be clear on that. These tests had the same rigor as the one they took last year.”

State officials reiterated that the tests were “comparably rigorous” to last year’s assessments and said they will review the indicators used to judge improvement in struggling schools and make sure they are “working as intended.”

Even if the comparison is flawed, some say, the test scores are still useful in assessing progress. “We have to have some point of comparison for how our students are doing, as imperfect as it might be,” said David Albert, spokesman for the New York State School Boards Association.

This year is not the first in which tests have changed — far from it. The tests have been revised multiple times over the last decade, with certain years showing large swings due to those changes.

After test scores dropped in 2013 with the introduction of Common Core standards and exams, the state vowed to revise the test to address concerns.

That process will likely take years, and during the transition period, grades 3-8 math and English tests will not be used to evaluate teachers. But state and city officials are still using those tests to judge struggling schools, and that’s a problem, said David Bloomfield, an education professor at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. Schools on the state’s or city’s lists of low-performing schools could face consequences, such as being taken over by an outside receiver or closed, if they fail to meet academic benchmarks.

“This isn’t a new phenomenon, it’s just that earlier there weren’t high stakes,” Bloomfield said. “Now because of the particularly short time span that’s involved, they are being used way beyond their ability for accurate measurement.”

Even without changes to the test, yearly fluctuations should be viewed carefully, said Roey Ahram, director of research and evaluation at the NYU Steinhardt Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools.

“You always have to look at test scores with a grain of salt, whether they are changing or not,” he said. “The asterisk is there for a reason.”

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.”