why the jump?

What caused New York City’s state test scores to jump?

PHOTO: Monica Disare
State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia at the School of Diplomacy in the Bronx.

When State Commissioner MaryEllen Elia announced this year’s state test scores, she said she wasn’t sure exactly what caused such a big statewide bump — nearly 7 percent in English proficiency and 1 percent point in math.

“We cannot pinpoint exactly why the test [scores] increased,” she told reporters on Friday afternoon.

Her comments immediately turned the spike in scores into an education-world Rorschach test, and everyone saw something different in the inkblot. Mayor Bill de Blasio immediately claimed victory for the city’s almost 8 percent increase in English proficiency, while charter school advocates zeroed in on the even bigger increase in charter test scores, and researchers rolled their eyes, pointing out that test scores are an unreliable marker of progress — especially when the tests themselves have changed.

So who’s right? The answer likely involves some combination of student learning and test tweaks. We’ve compiled a list of the most prominent theories and looked at the evidence for each.

The de Blasio reforms are working

City officials wasted no time claiming de Blasio-era reforms drove the rise in test scores.

“A lot is changing, and this is pure, hard evidence that these changes are working, and we expect a lot more to come,” said de Blasio at a Monday press conference. He cited his “Renewal” program for struggling schools; his administration’s support of community schools, which offer additional services to families; and his universal pre-K push.

De Blasio’s case is supported by the fact that city proficiency rates increased more, on average, than test scores statewide. While the percentage of students passing state English scores increased by 6.6 percent, the city’s increased by 7.6 percent. Commissioner Elia also gave the city kudos, saying a renewed focus on teacher training and writing might explain the jump in scores.

State tests got easier

Could de Blasio-era reforms explain the entire increase in test scores? Probably not.

State tests across the state went up significantly — so much that Elia herself cautioned this year’s test scores are not an “apples-to-apples” comparison to last year’s. In response to the backlash over the introduction of Common Core-based assessments, officials made a number of changes to the tests this year, including shortening them and giving students unlimited time. Researchers said those changes likely explain some, if not much, of the statewide increase.

The increases “are sufficiently large that it makes me think there’s something about the difference in the tests from last year that accounts for the difference in growth,” said Aaron Pallas, a professor of sociology and education at Teachers College at Columbia University.

Charter schools are part of the answer

Just as quickly as Fariña and de Blasio celebrated the rise in scores, charter school advocates — frequent rivals of de Blasio — jumped in with their own good news.

City charter school English proficiency rate went up by 13.7 percent, beating the city’s overall average increase by a fair margin. Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz dismissed the rising scores at traditional district schools since they mirrored the state’s more closely and could thus be explained by the test changes, she argued. To “find real improvement,” she wrote in the New York Daily News, officials should look to charter schools instead.

New York City charter schools’ scores are analyzed separately from district schools, and so the charter growth didn’t contribute to — or account for — the city’s bump, state officials said. But their scores did contribute to the statewide increase.

The Common Core is working

There might be other explanations, but here’s the last one we’ll explore: The Common Core is working.

In 2013, state officials implemented tests aligned to the more rigorous Common Core learning standards. Experts knew the new tests would likely cause an immediate drop in scores, but officials hoped that over time, students and teachers would adjust to the new material and eventually test scores would rise.

Could this be a sign they were right? One piece of evidence to support that theory is the fact that the biggest increases in English proficiency were among third-graders, who started their elementary school education with a Common Core curriculum. Third grade proficiency levels in the state increased by 10.9 percent.

That did not go unnoticed by the Education Trust, a nonprofit that heralded the progress on state tests as a sign that higher standards work.

“The Common Core state standards and tests have been unfairly demonized and used to excuse the failures of our education system,” two leaders of the group wrote. “When we truly listen to what teachers, parents and students are saying, we know that high standards, implemented well, enable students to thrive.”

In the end, it’s likely too early to know exactly what drove the results, said Pallas, the Columbia testing expert. He is trying to isolate how much of the change has to do with test structure, as opposed to better instruction or learning. Right now, he said, parsing the two is tricky.

“There’s just too many moving parts right now,” he explained. “We’ll be able to have a better sense of what’s going on [eventually], but right now we’re in this gray area.”

 

star power

Matt Damon’s latest role: The voice of an education documentary featuring Tennessee testing

PHOTO: Sarah Mondale, Vera Aronow

Tennessee’s debate about over-testing is a cause célèbre — or at least a cause drawing the attention of Matt Damon.

The movie star narrates a new documentary that explores the privatization of public schools. It features Nashville’s Gower Elementary School, as well as board member Amy Frogge of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

Nashville school board member Amy Frogge is featured in the documentary.

Called “Backpack Full of Cash,” the 90-minute film was released in late 2016 and screened this week at the Nashville Film Festival.

“I got involved in ‘Backpack Full of Cash’ because I believe that every kid should have access to great public schools,” Damon said in a statement. “… I got a great education in public schools, and my mom is an educator so I know just how hard teachers work every day.”

The segment featuring Gower Elementary was filmed in the spring of 2014 as students prepared for TCAP tests. A scene showing students practicing multiple-choice questions is followed by a comment from education writer David Kirp: “I’ve sat through those classes. I could barely sit still for 42 minutes. They’re asked to do it for 12 years.”

The film details a long list of tests that Gower students take during the school year, ending with four days of state-mandated testing.

Filmmakers Sarah Mondale and Vera Aronow said they chose to focus that part of the film on Tennessee because of the state’s 2010 Race to the Top win of $500 million in federal funds, which was spurred by a slew of reforms with test data at their core.

“(Tennessee) was a leader in the use of data and testing to drive education — a key part of market-based school reform,” Mondale said.

The movie also covers charter schools in Philadelphia and school vouchers in New Orleans. Both have been hotly debated issues in Tennessee as well.

The film’s title pokes at an argument often made by school choice advocates: that public money should follow students, no matter what school they attend.

“This idea that education is nothing more than the sum of public money that follows kids around is exactly the argument that the film is trying to refute,” Mondale said.

Since the movie’s filming, Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has twice convened task forces to reduce testing, resulting in the elimination of required eighth- and tenth-grade tests. After test times ballooned in the first year of TNReady in 2016, the state shortened the English test this year. (For fifth-graders, it’s dropped from 226 minutes during the last year of TCAP in 2014-15, to 195 minutes this year.) Meanwhile, testing in math has gotten longer (92 minutes in 2014-15 vs. 115 minutes this year), and science has stayed the same. This year’s social studies test is a shortened field test.

McQueen says her department has taken pains to make the current tests more engaging, while emphasizing that the best test prep is “good teaching,” not tedious practice questions.

“Backpack Full of Cash” is a co-production of Stone Lantern Films Inc. and Turnstone Productions. You can find more information about the film and how to watch it here.

BACKPACK FULL OF CASH Official Trailer from Stone Lantern Films on Vimeo.

 

Testing Testing

“ILEARN” is in, ISTEP is out — Indiana legislature approves test set to begin in 2019. Now awaiting governor’s OK.

PHOTO: Grace Tatter

A little more than a year ago, lawmakers made the dramatic call to “repeal” the state’s beleaguered ISTEP test without a set alternative.

Friday night, they finally decided on a plan for what should replace it.

The “ILEARN” testing system in House Bill 1003 passed the House 68-29 and passed the Senate 39-11. Next, the bill will go to Gov. Eric Holcomb for him to sign into law.

The new test would be used for the first time in 2019, meaning ISTEP still has one more year of life. In the meantime, the Indiana Department of Education will be tasked with developing the new test and finding a vendor. Currently, the state contracts with the British test writing company Pearson.

House Speaker Brian Bosma said he was very pleased with the compromise, which he thinks could result in a short, more effective test — although many of those details will depend on the final test writer.

However, a number of Democrats, and even some Republicans, expressed frustration with the testing proposal.

“The federal government requires us to take one test,” said Sen. Aaron Freeman, a Republican from Indianapolis. “Why we continue to add more and more to this, I have no idea.”

For the most part, the test resembles what was recommended by a group of educators, lawmakers and policymakers charged with studying a test replacement. There would be a new year-end test for elementary and middle school students, and High schools would give end-of-course exams in 10th grade English, ninth-grade biology, and algebra I.

An optional end-of-course exam would be added for U.S. government, and the state would be required to test kids in social studies once in fifth or eighth grade.

It’s not clear if the plan still includes state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick’s suggestion to use an elementary and middle school test that would be “computer-adaptive” and adjust difficulty based on students’ answers.

The plan does make potentially significant changes to the state’s graduation requirements. Rather than having ECAs count as the “graduation exam,” the bill would create a number of graduation pathways that the Indiana State Board of Education would flesh out. Options could include the SAT, ACT, industry certifications, or the ASVAB military entrance exam.

Test researchers who have come to speak to Indiana lawmakers have cautioned against such a move, as many of these measures were not designed to determine high school graduation.

While teacher evaluations would still be expected to include test scores in some way, the bill gives some flexibility to districts as to specifically how to incorporate them, said Rep. Bob Behning, an Indianapolis Republican and the bill’s author.

Currently, law says ISTEP scores must “significantly inform” evaluations, but districts use a wide range of percentages to fit that requirement.

You can find all of Chalkbeat’s testing coverage here.