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New York state officials announce there will be no changes to state exams until 2019

PHOTO: Monica Disare
State Commissioner MaryEllen Elia

Those seeking changes to New York’s standardized tests will have to wait at least two more years, State Education Department officials announced Monday.

The decision, which will affect grades 3-8 English and math exams, was presented by state officials as a chance to allow for stable, annual comparisons between test scores while officials consider a more dramatic shake-up to tests in 2019. But the move is likely to draw ire from parents across the state, roughly 20 percent of whom opted their children out of last year’s the exams in protest, demanding major changes to assessments.

The state considered making larger testing adjustments — including shifting from three-day tests to two — but determined it would not be possible to do so while keeping results reliable, said State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia.

“Our expert analysis determined it would not be feasible to do that and still be able to have meaningful growth comparisons for students, schools or statewide,” Elia said. “We will reexamine shortening the testing days as part of designing the tests for the state’s new learning standards.”

The state made a number of changes to assessments this year in response to parents’ concerns about over-testing, which inspired a robust boycott movement. Last year for the first time, students had unlimited time to take the tests and sat for shortened assessments.

Average scores improved, but the adjustments caused a problem: They precluded an apples-to-apples comparison between years. That meant it was difficult to examine whether students gained knowledge in English and math. In New York City, some leaders ignored the state’s caveats about making comparisons between years and reported the scores as a major victory.

To avoid recreating these problems, officials decided they could not continue making changes over the next two years. Even Chancellor Betty Rosa, who said last year she would opt her own child out of state assessments, expressed her support for leaving the exams unchanged.

“Maintaining the current testing for now will allow us to measure student development over time,” Rosa said.

Leaders of the statewide opt-out movement made it clear last year that the commissioner’s efforts to revamp tests did not satisfy their concerns — and sent that message on Monday.

“As the NYS testing system continues to be in turmoil, keeping tests the same length is essentially a green light for parents to continue opting out and it will fuel the movement to grow,” said Lisa Rudley, a founding member of New York State Allies for Public Education, which helped lead the statewide opt-out movement.

The state teachers union said the decision shows a “disregard” for the concerns of parents and educators. “Despite a fierce outcry against the length of state standardized tests by parents and educators, the State Education Department is punting on the changes needed to move forward. So much for listening,” the statement read, urging the department to reconsider its decision.

Such resistance could become even more difficult in the coming years, since the new federal education law requires 95 percent of students to take state tests, with consequences to be determined by the states themselves. Regent Roger Tilles, who represents opt-out hotbed Long Island, brought up this challenge at the Board of Regents meeting.

“I can almost assure that without some real changes, the parents’ group won’t necessarily understand [the lack of changes],” Tilles said. “We should anticipate at least a couple more years of difficulty in getting to the 95 percent.”

Editor’s Note: After sending a press release on Monday stating that state exams in grades 3-8 ELA and math would not be changed in 2017 or 2018, Chancellor Betty Rosa said Tuesday the board is willing to discuss changes in 2018. Education Department spokesperson Emily DeSantis said, “Given the recent events of the past month and our discussions yesterday, we are making no decisions right now about the 2018 assessments.” 

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.

Starting early

It’s not just older students. Tennessee second-graders also started testing this week in nearly 100 districts

PHOTO: Grace Tatter

When LaRita Mitchell was a third-grade teacher, she often found her students were starting behind. They were just beginning to work with multiplication tables when the state’s standards assumed they’d already mastered them. They hadn’t yet encountered division.

“We noticed things that we thought were taught in second grade were not, and we could see a huge gap,” said Mitchell, who works at Sherwood Elementary in Memphis.

Then, Mitchell switched to teaching second grade, and she understood why her students’ had gaps in knowledge. “Second grade used to be more like first grade on steroids,” she said. “Third grade was a huge jump.”

This year, Mitchell’s second-graders are taking a new state standardized test aimed at keeping their students on track in reading and math. It’s shorter than the TNReady assessments that older students are taking but, like TNReady, it’s supposed to better gauge academic skills.  

State officials hope the new second-grade assessment, which is optional for districts, will provide valuable data to both second- and third-grade teachers. That data, they say, should help Tennessee reach its goal of getting 75 percent of third-graders reading on grade level by 2025.

A lot of emphasis is put on third-grade tests. It’s the first year the state has test score data for all students, and research shows that if students are behind in third grade, it’s challenging to catch up.

Before this year, districts could administer the SAT-10, a Pearson-designed test that was not aligned to Tennessee’s standards. That bothered teachers, because SAT-10 tested things, like coordinated grids, that Tennessee teachers were not supposed to teach in the second grade, according to their standards.

“This is crazy,” Cindy Cliche remembers thinking about the SAT-10 tests when she taught second grade for Rutherford County Schools.

“That’s why I was so excited that the state was actually developing a test based on second-grade standards,” said Cliche, now a math coordinator for Murfreesboro City Schools. “ … I want a test that will truly give us information about our students.’”

In addition to being aligned with the state’s standards, Tennessee’s new Questar-administered test has similar questions to TNReady assessments for third- and fourth-graders. Those emphasize the types of literacy skills that the State Department of Education is pushing under its “Ready to be Ready” initiative. Just as with the SAT-10, the new test scores will be used to measure improvement in third grade that will be part of third-grade teacher evaluations.

Tennessee isn’t alone in finding early testing useful. Federal law doesn’t require annual testing until the third grade, but 35 states have some sort of test for younger students. Fifteen, including Tennessee, have a single statewide assessment for younger students, while other states allow districts to choose from a menu.

But unlike 29 other states, Tennessee doesn’t require districts to administer a test before third grade; districts decide whether to opt-in.

Still, nearly 100 districts — far more than half of Tennessee’s 146 — are using this year’s test, around double the districts that used the SAT-10 last school year.

Despite its national popularity, testing in early grades has a lot of critics. Younger students don’t have the same skillset as older ones when it comes to standardized testing, the critics say. In addition to the challenge of understanding the purpose of testing, younger students often can’t sit still as long and have a harder time holding pencils and bubbling in answers.

Mitchell says her students struggle with testing — but they do it all year, since Shelby County Schools, like many districts, also require MAP tests, which stand for Measurements of Academic Progress.

“You can only read a question one time. What happens if a child was asleep and didn’t catch it?” she said. “I had a little boy and he was out cold. He was like two to three questions behind. I’m thinking, ‘Oh well, what do you do?’”

The good news for sleepy students is that the state’s test is relatively short. And at Mitchell’s school, it will be administered in the morning, when students are more alert. Each part of the test is 40 minutes, and students take it spread across four days. Students can write their answers in the test booklet, rather than transferring them to a bubble sheet, like older students.

“They’ll probably think TNReady is a breeze coming off of the MAP testing,” Mitchell said.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen says that the test is designed not to be boring.

“They’re interesting questions, questions that require thinking, which makes it much more engaging for students,” she said.