take it back

One day after sweeping testing announcement, New York state walks it back

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

One day after New York state officials announced standardized tests would not change in 2017 or 2018, the same officials quickly altered their position.

Instead of keeping tests constant for three years, as the state had announced, Chancellor Betty Rosa suggested Tuesday morning that testing changes during 2018 are still up for discussion. Later in the day, education department spokesperson Emily DeSantis confirmed Rosa’s statement.

“Given the recent events of the past month and our discussions yesterday, we are making no decisions right now about the 2018 assessments,” DeSantis said.

State officials are calling Tuesday’s announcement a “clarification,” but it directly contradicts a press release sent out by state officials on Monday. Titled “No changes to grades 3-8 ELA and math tests in 2017 or 2018,” the press release says the state considered shortening the tests to two days each, but decided that would make stable comparisons between years impossible. Both Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and Chancellor Betty Rosa are quoted in Monday’s release supporting the decision.

It’s not clear exactly what changed between Monday morning and Tuesday afternoon, but several groups expressed outrage in the interim. The state’s teachers union said the state’s initial vow not to change the tests showed a “disregard” for the concerns of educators and parents and said the decision was made without their input. “So much for listening,” the union wrote in a statement.

The state’s testing opt-out movement, which includes one in five families across the state, also pushed for more aggressive testing changes. Lisa Rudley, one of movement’s leaders said after Monday’s announcement that keeping the tests the same length through 2018 would give families a “green light” to keep boycotting.

Rudley, who is still not satisfied with the state’s decision to keep tests constant in 2017, said she is unsure whether public outcry changed officials’ minds on Monday night. But regardless, she said, the discrepancy is concerning.

“The press release said one thing, then they walked it back the next day,” Rudley said. “That’s just uncomfortable for everybody. It’s not giving us confidence in what’s happening.”

Carl Korn, spokesman for the state’s teachers union, also did not take explicit credit for the state’s change of heart, saying only, “Parents and educators together have been united in pushing back against excessive testing.”

Rosa, in her statement Tuesday morning, said she wanted to make sure the state considered input from experts, parents, teachers, educators and others who have a “vested interest in the welfare of our children” when making decisions about the 2018 tests.

Groups that supported the original announcement Monday as better for the measurement of student progress, such as High Achievement New York, were less excited about Tuesday’s change and urged the state to keep tests constant in 2018.

“Continuity matters,” said Stephen Sigmund, executive director of High Achievement New York. “Further improvements to the assessments after revised standards are rolled out make sense, but not before then. And we’re hopeful that SED sticks with its two year commitment.”

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.