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.”

 

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.”