testing turn

Much-criticized teacher literacy test could be on the chopping block next month

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Indianapolis Public Schools picked a new model for teacher observations.

New York is poised to make it significantly easier to become a teacher — though their plans are on ice for a month.

The state’s education policymakers were set to vote on a major change to teacher certification requirements on Monday that would have walked back a controversial effort to make the teaching profession more selective. Winter weather won out, canceling the meeting.

The votes may happen in March but education department officials said it’s too early to have a finalized agenda. Here’s what we know:

Big changes to teacher certifications

One change would eliminate the test designed to measure prospective teachers’ reading and writing ability, known as the Academic Literacy Skills Test. The Regents were also set to discuss changes to the edTPA exam, which requires prospective teachers to videotape their lessons. Under the new plan, prospective teachers who barely failed the edTPA exam could still get certified after a review of factors like recommendations and their grade point averages.

Both tests were added to the requirements to become a teacher in New York during a process to overhaul teacher preparation that started in 2009. At the time, Regents said they hoped more rigorous exams focused on literacy and the real-life demands of the teaching profession would help make sure students had well-qualified educators.

But it hasn’t been an easy transition for potential educators, or for the schools that prepare them. Only 77 percent of aspiring teachers have passed the edTPA since its rollout in New York, prompting a safety-net option that allowed candidates to take an easier, paper-based exam.

And not everyone has been convinced that the new tests offer valuable feedback or are worth the costs. The literacy test has even faced legal challenges, since black and Hispanic candidates have passed the test in lower numbers. In 2013-14, only 48 percent of aspiring black teachers and 56 percent of aspiring Hispanic teachers passed the exam, compared to 75 percent of prospective white teachers.

That has prompted concern that trying to solve one problem created others, keeping more teachers of color out of classrooms just as the state is trying to boost those numbers.

Those concerns led the Regents to create a task force of education officials and experts, offered recommendations for sweeping changes at the January Regents meeting.

The literacy test is duplicative and unnecessary, said Jamie Dangler, vice president for academics at United University Professions, which represents SUNY employees, and who co-chaired the state’s edTPA task force.

“There are serious problems with the content and format of the ALST,” Dangler said. “It’s a poorly constructed exam.”

The review process for students who just miss the edTPA passing score would apply to those have at least a 3.0 GPA, and pass other required exams. A committee would then review additional material, like teacher recommendations, to determine if the prospective educator should earn a certification. That change would go out for public comment and is likely to come before the board for a vote in June, according to board materials.

Those materials list a number of other potential changes related to the edTPA, including convening a committee to rethink the passing score — which could mean lowering it. The state wants a new cut score by 2017, according to Monday’s materials.

More ways to earn a diploma

The Regents were also set to pave the way for high school students to swap a foreign language test for their final Regents exam required to graduate.

Specifically, they were set to approve the criteria they will use to decide which foreign language exams will count as alternative graduation exams. That puts the state in a position to allow some students to use one of those exams to graduate in just a few months. New York has begun allowing students to swap art, career and technical skills, and a skills certificate for their fifth Regents exam.

Abja Midha, a project director at Advocates for Children, says she expects the state will start by approving nationally recognized foreign language tests, such as Advanced Placement exams.

The news of the day

The Regents were also set to take on a few hot topics, such as the recently released graduation rates and the governor’s controversial state aid proposal. To what extent do Regents think the bump in statewide graduation rates have to do with changes the state made to graduation requirements? Were the Regents planning to take a stand against Cuomo’s proposal to change the way the state funds high-needs schools?

We may not know until March.

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.”