the new deal

New York to release first big look at how it might evaluate schools under the Every Student Succeeds Act

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Regents Luis Reyes and Beverly Ouderkirk go over some paperwork at July's Board of Regents meeting.

In the year and a half since the Every Student Succeeds Act was adopted as a replacement for No Child Left Behind, states have pondered how they might use it to measure school success. Here in New York, that vision will become much more clear on Monday when the state is expected to release its draft ESSA plan.

So far, during discussions about ESSA, the Regents have mentioned several big ideas: Boosting diversity, overhauling state assessments, and encouraging advanced curriculum, among others.

Now, finally, those big ideas will be spelled out in practical detail. The Regents may want to measure diversity, but how can they foster it in schools? There may be a desire to revamp state tests, but who will pay for the change?

Though Monday’s draft will not be the state’s final version, it will give the most up-to-date indication of where New York stands.

Here’s what we’ll be watching for:

Will it be a big departure from No Child Left Behind?

In many ways, that is the million dollar question.

While No Child Left Behind was widely criticized for setting rigid and unrealistic expectations, the new federal education law gives states more power to rate and help schools — provided they choose to take it.

The newfound power comes with caveats, most importantly that any rating system still has to focus on student achievement. But the Regents have talked passionately about moving beyond test scores as a way to judge progress and have expressed interest in experimenting with different assessments, such as ones that ask students to complete a series of projects.

“It’s really exciting,” Regent Judith Johnson said. “This is not going to look like No Child Left Behind, but it builds on it in terms of trying to get schools to perform at a higher level for kids.”

Will there be an A-F rating, a dashboard, or both?

When parents want to learn about their child’s school, they might turn to the State Education Department website. Should they be able to see one summative rating, like a letter grade, a dashboard full of different measures, or both? That question has so far gone unanswered in New York.

Letter grades can be controversial. In New York City, when former Mayor Michael Bloomberg sought to simplify school ratings by using letter grades, the system was criticized for being blunt and unreliable; they caused controversy or alterations in other states, too.

Some advocates, including Education Trust, think it is crucial for parents to have a summative rating, so they have a clear and easy way to see if a school is high-quality. (The group has not advocated specifically for an A-F rating.)

Whether or not they use a summative rating, the Regents could also create dashboards with several metrics. Some indicators may be based on performance and used explicitly for accountability, while others may simply provide information. For instance, the state could choose to display per-pupil student funding, which doesn’t work as a school accountability metric because it’s out of a school’s control.

The state has worked extensively with Linda Darling-Hammond, one of the nation’s leading education researchers, who champions a dashboard approach. She explained in an interview with Chalkbeat earlier this year why she thinks the dashboard approach is key and how she thinks it could be a lever for equity.

“I’ve never heard a parent who said, ‘Can you just give my first-grader a single rating and tell me how I rate against the other children in the class with no other details?’ Darling-Hammond said. “It’s not very helpful to move the child forward if you don’t have those specifics.”

Will integration be a part of the plan?

New York state has some of the most segregated schools in the country. At the last Regents meeting, state officials suggested they may leverage ESSA to do something about it.

They could ask schools to report a metric that shows the diversity of their school on a dashboard of other metrics, for instance, or encourage schools to use integration strategies as part of a school turnaround strategy.

The details of how this would work are hazy, but any chance to elevate these issues to the state level is welcome news to advocates.

“I’ve been kind of anxious to see what New York state is going to do about it,” said Matt Gonzales, who leads school integration efforts for the nonprofit New York Appleseed. “The fact that they’re at least having discussions about it, for me, I think that’s a good sign.”

Will they make any major changes to state tests?

The federal law allows seven states to participate in a pilot program designed to create innovative assessments. Originally, New York officials expressed interest in applying.

But their interest waned when they found out the pilot comes with no additional funding, which means overhauling testing would come with a massive bill. The state asked for $8 million from the legislature to pilot project-based assessments this year, but did not get the money.

Regent Judith Chin suggested that any inclusion of newer, innovative assessments in the draft plan would likely be “very targeted” because the state is required to implement this plan in a relatively short period of time.

How will they use test scores?

When U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos bungled a question about the difference between growth and proficiency at her confirmation hearing, the nerdy policy debate that many believe is at the heart of ESSA hit the national stage.

But in New York, it will now move beyond dinner party jokes to a serious issue that New York’s policymakers have to decide. They will need to determine to what extent it should matter if students reach a certain bar, like a third-grade reading level, versus whether students made progress compared to where they started.

No Child Left Behind focused on proficiency. Some say that is an important measure because the ultimate goal is to make every student college- and career-ready by graduation.

But critics say a narrow focus on proficiency leads schools to pay more attention to students close to attaining proficiency and ignore those far behind or far ahead. It can also be unfair for schools that serve high-needs students, since those populations of students often start well below grade-level.

Instead, some experts say, it’s essential to put as much emphasis on growth as possible.

“Historically, we’ve judged schools based on the level that students are achieving at,” said David Griffith, a research and policy associate at the right-learning Fordham Institute. “That’s accountability 1.0 and I think it’s high time to move onto accountability 2.0.”

Other than that, what might be different?

Under ESSA, states get to experiment with a way to judge schools beyond academic achievement and test scores.

Many states, including New York, have been looking at attendance and chronic absenteeism as possible metrics. Based on a draft set of potential indicators released in April, the state is looking at attendance and absenteeism, along with gauges of high school success, such as whether students took advanced classes or CTE coursework. The state will also have to include a metric to judge the progress of English language learners.

That set of potential yardsticks does not seem terribly different from what other states have proposed, said Priscilla Wohlstetter, a professor at Columbia’s Teachers College. If they wanted to truly alter their approach, they might look to a program in California that’s testing students’ social-emotional skills, she said. (It’s worth noting, however, that the woman who has championed the importance of “grit,” says it should not be used as an accountability metric.)

Meanwhile, some teachers are pushing for school climate to be part of the accountability mix. A letter with 479 signatures from Educators for Excellence, a teacher advocacy group, urges the state to consider including school discipline data, chronic absenteeism and school surveys in the plan.

How will they choose to intervene in struggling schools?

The new law also allows states to decide how they want to intervene in schools they determine are struggling.

Compared to the discussion about metrics and test scores, this topic has gotten relatively little attention. Regent Chin said it’s likely the state will propose something that resembles the current receivership model, which means a small number of schools may be taken over by an outside entity if they fail to meet state benchmarks.


Fifth-graders will study more Tennessee history to comply with a new state law

PHOTO: Mike Folsom

When lawmakers voted this spring to add a semester of Tennessee history to students’ education, they threw a curveball at new social studies standards that were approaching final approval.

Now the State Board of Education has announced how it plans to accommodate the new mandate. Beginning in the fall of 2019, fifth-graders will be learning more about Native Americans, early settlements and the state’s development in culture, economics and politics.

Students also will receive smaller doses of Tennessee-centric studies in the third and eighth grades, in addition to some basic lessons already required for first-graders.

The changes are part of revisions to new standards that the State Board is expected to give final approval to on Friday. Those standards will determine what students should learn grade-by-grade in their social studies, history and civics classes.

The latest revisions represent the final twist in a contentious, 18-month-long review process that began with complaints from some individuals and groups about how Islam was being taught in seventh-grade world history. Social studies teachers had also complained about an excessive number of standards to teach, contributing to the State Board’s decision to launch the review two years earlier than planned.

The result was an overhaul that reduced the number of standards by 14 percent — but at the expense of some Tennessee history such as the Chickamauga Indians, “Roots” author Alex Haley, and the New Madrid earthquakes. And even though the State Board unanimously approved the new standards on first reading in April, it received pushback from historians and other advocates about topics being excluded.

Soon after, lawmakers passed the new mandate during the waning hours of this year’s session. Thus, after the painstaking process of winnowing down the number of standards, the state had to put some back in.

Sara Heyburn Morrison, executive director of the State Board, calls the latest changes “the right balance.” She also thinks that fifth grade is the best place to add a semester of Tennessee history, based on input from educators and members from the Standards Recommendation Committee.

“We put it all out on the table, K through 12,” she said Wednesday about the latest deliberations. “Where would this course be best integrated to support student learning and be developmentally appropriate?”

They landed on fifth grade. Younger students aren’t quite ready for advanced Tennessee history; middle schoolers focus more on world history.

“(It’s the) least amount of content eliminated and still make sense developmentally,” she said.

Specifically, students will study Tennessee history in the second half of their fifth-grade year, shifting the standards so that they concentrate the bulk of those studies in a single grade.

“There was a lot of shuffling in all the grades since Tennessee history was embedded throughout the standards,” said McKenzie Manning, a spokeswoman for the State Board.

The new standards also require students to compare and contrast major world religions, including Christianity and Islam, and adds Sikhism to a high school elective on current events.

Below is a informational sheet provided by the State Board of Education on the changes.

Every Student Succeeds Act

New federal rules are pushing Indiana to explore giving state tests in Spanish

PHOTO: Kelly Wilkinson / The Star
Kindergartners Ivania, left, and Jackie work on reading and writing with their teacher, Liz Amadio, at Enlace Academy.

Native Spanish-speakers could soon have an opportunity to take Indiana state tests in their first language.

Indiana education officials are proposing offering future state math and science tests in Spanish — and possibly other languages — as part of their plan to comply with new requirements of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced No Child Left Behind in 2015.

Supporters of native language tests say, among other benefits, they can be far less jarring for children than sitting them in front of a test written in a language they can’t understand.

“The whole thinking is (English-learners) would do better if we’d give them access,” said Trish Morita-Mullaney, a researcher and professor at Purdue University who specializes in English language learning. “We don’t want you sitting blankly in front of an English test, we want you to at least have an opportunity to do well.”

The proposal says the translated tests could be available as early as spring of 2019, in time for the first administration of ILEARN, the test currently in the works to replace ISTEP.

While state officials said they’d focus on Spanish, the state’s ESSA plan says they anticipate adding three others to the mix. One option could be Burmese, which has a strong presence in four districts across the state, including some in Marion County.

About 72 percent of Indiana students learning English speak Spanish at home. Overall, Indiana’s 50,677 English-learners speak more than 270 languages, representing the second-fastest growing English-learner population in the entire country.

Morita-Mullaney said she is happy to see Indiana explore native language tests, but she hopes they take it slow and learn from of others. Some past mistakes include trying to test in too many languages (a costly, time-consuming endeavor) and trying to make the new tests happen before proper vetting and before schools collect input from students and families.

California, Texas, New York and Oregon have all, at some point, given native language tests, Morita-Mullaney said. And while it’s not a new idea, it’s still fairly uncharted territory. Based on a 2016 report from Education Week, fewer than 12 states test in languages other than English. Some states, like Florida, are trying to eschew the native language requirement altogether.

But one big piece missing from Indiana’s plan, Morita-Mullaney said, is how the state plans to ensure the test measures what the state intends it to measure — known in the test design world as “construct validity.”

Put another way, if a student is taking a math test in English, but they are fluent in Spanish, is the test measuring how well they know math, or how well they know English? That specific idea is part of the rationale for using native language tests, but there’s a related problem, Morita-Mullaney said: If a native Spanish-speaker is taught math in English, and tested in Spanish, is that also a fair and accurate test?

“If the original instruction was in English, what guarantee do we have that they actually understood it?” Morita-Mullaney said. “Are we testing the language, are we testing the content or both? That component is not in the (state plan).”

A way around this dilemma is through dual language instruction, where students are taught both in English and another language. But while those classes are growing in popularity, they make up a small minority of programs in schools, and many of them are designed to serve students who already know English, rather than students who need support in English and their home language.

Hopefully, Morita-Mullaney said, Indiana will try out native language tests first for small groups of students to make sure they truly provide an advantage to English-learners and function as intended. And ideally, she added, that would come with a renewed investment in bilingual education.

“It’s a wonderful effort, but I remain concerned that we have not examined construct validity,” she said. “But I don’t want construct validity to be used as an argument to not do it … there’s so much we don’t know, and there’s so many states that have done this the wrong way. We need to learn from their pitfalls.”

The move toward using native language tests is indicative of a larger trend of inclusivity in ESSA. Before, students learning English tended to be an afterthought in state education policy. Now, not only are native language tests on the table, but English-learners also have a larger piece of the state’s A-F grade formula.

“This is the first time (English-learners) have had a prominent place in our accountability system,” said Maryanne McMahon, an Indiana State Board of Education member and assistant superintendent in Avon.

There are also safeguards in place in the new rules to ensure even top-rated schools are taking care to educate all students. Going forward, schools could be be singled out for extra support from the state not just if they are rated a D or an F, but also if smaller groups of students, such as English-learners, are struggling.

“You can still have an A-district not meeting EL goals,” Morita-Mullaney said. “People think, ‘We’re an A, we’re good,’ but what it does is it masks disparities. So when you start to look more closely, you see that they’re an A-district, but gee, their English-learners are doing crummy.”

The state is on track to submit its ESSA plan to the federal government in September, and the state board is set to discuss the issues further next month.

Read more about Indiana’s ESSA journey here.