Growing pains

Three possible explanations for why students with special needs didn’t fare as well on PARCC

When state officials this week released new data showing how much students had grown academically year-to-year on state tests, one statistic jumped out.

The gap separating students with special needs from other students had grown dramatically, leaving educators and advocates searching for answers.

Colorado’s student growth report calculates how much students learn year-to-year compared to students who start in a similar place academically. Students with special needs not only lag behind other students, but this year’s data showed they are learning at a slower rate than two years ago.

Before we get to possible explanations, an important note about these students, who have individualized education plans that define goals and services each student should get.

Students have these plans for a variety of reasons. They include speech impediments, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and emotional disabilities. A very small number have cognitive disabilities, experts say.

That means the overwhelming majority of students with such plans should be just as likely to score well on standardized tests as their peers without special needs if they have the right help, experts say.

While state officials and experts we spoke with are concerned about this year’s results, most cautioned that it was too early to reach firm conclusions or know whether this is the start of a trend or an outlier.

Here are some possible explanations for the growing growth gap for students with special needs:

Students with individualized education plans may not have enough access to inclusive classrooms with the critical thinking they need to do well on tests (and in life).

With the adoption of the Common Core State Standards in English and math, teachers and students have been asked to make fundamental changes in the classroom.

A greater emphasis has been placed on critical thinking over rote memorization. Students are being asked to read longer and denser passages and cite evidence in written responses.

Students with disabilities aren’t getting that opportunity, experts say.

“Too often kids with disabilities just don’t have the opportunity to learn,” said Sheryl Lazarus, a senior research associate with the National Center for Education Outcomes, which focuses on underserved students. “The reading and writing (on the assessments) were real challenges. Students need the opportunity to learn the grade-level content. Once they do that, they’ll do much, much better on these assessments.”

A report Lazarus co-authored surveyed teachers in states that used the PARCC exams or another multi-state test, Smarter Balanced. It found:

  • Students with special needs were not used to reading long passages like those found on the tests.
  • Those same students were not used to writing extended responses and lacked basic computer skills.
  • They also had difficulty using evidence to justify their answers and lacked basic research skills.

Angela Denning, the state education department’s special education chief, said state monitoring found only about 60 percent of students with special needs spent 80 percent or more of their time in classrooms with the general student population.

That’s not enough, she said.

“My bet is that schools with small or no growth gaps have students with disabilities receiving good instruction in those core areas in the regular education classrooms” with help and instructional strategies tailored for them, she said.

Denver Public Schools, which has one of the largest growth gaps between students with disabilities and other students, is focusing more on including all students in regular classroom work. Ten schools are part of a new pilot program seeking to better incorporate students with disabilities in general classrooms.

The district is also training teachers to write better learning plans for students with special needs to include more data, and goals for improvement and meeting academic standards.

“We need to have our results translate to all kids,” said Josh Drake, DPS’s executive director for exceptional students.

Pam Bisceglia, a coordinator for AdvocacyDenver, which champions the rights of students with special needs, said both special education and general education teachers need more cross-training on how to better meet the needs of students regardless of what classroom they are in.

“There always has to be a shared responsibility to meeting kids’ needs,” she said.

While the new computer-based state tests have features meant to put students with special needs on a level playing field, that doesn’t mean students and teachers know how to use them.

The PARCC exams, which are mostly taken on computers, come with plenty of bells and whistles. A 200-plus page manual describes in detail what can be done to help students, including larger fonts, having passages read aloud and more.

“PARCC has tons of stuff built in for accommodations, but that doesn’t mean that’s better,” said Ann Morrison, an associate professor at the School of Education at the Metropolitan State University of Denver. “What we should look for is high degrees of ease of use … My sense about PARCC is that there is not an ease of use.”

Teacher and student frustrations with technology could put the results in question, Morrison said.

“Anxiety gets in the way of learning and demonstrating learning,” she said.

A PARCC spokeswoman said the group tests the tools used by students and is adding new ones. In 2016, PARCC included a function that allowed math problems to be read aloud in both English and Spanish, and in 2017 PARCC will offer a Braille version of the test.

Bisceglia said that while there was some confusion about how schools provided accommodations to students during PARCC’s first year, she heard of no complaints this year.

Kids with special needs opted out of the tests at a higher rate than their peers.

Colorado’s PARCC scores have been called into question because of the large number of students choosing not to take the tests in higher grades — mostly in high-performing schools.

Opt-out rates also are slightly higher for students with individualized education plans, state data show.

Derek Briggs, director of the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center for Assessment, Design, Research and Evaluation, suggested that within that group, students more likely to score well were the ones who skipped out.

“It’s a relatively small group,” Briggs said about the number of students with education plans. “It doesn’t take that much [to skew results].”

Denning, the state’s special education chief, said she’s asking an advisory council of parents and educators to examine why opt-out numbers are higher in the special education community.

testing talk

‘Virtually meaningless’ or ‘steady progress’? New York City reacts to this year’s state test scores

PHOTO: Grace Tatter

English and math exam pass rates inched up in New York City this year compared to last year — more than they did in the state as a whole, city officials announced Tuesday.

The annual release of test scores created a wave of reactions from education stakeholders across the state. Charter school advocates claimed victory, the state teachers union called them “meaningless” and Mayor Bill de Blasio said they represent the “painstaking work” of schools across New York City.

Here is a sample of reactions:

The mayor touted his own education agenda.

“These improvements over the past four years represent painstaking work – student by student, classroom by classroom, and school by school. It’s steady progress towards a stronger and fairer system for all. We are focused on building on these gains and others – such as the highest-ever high school graduation rate – to deliver equity and excellence for every public school student across the city, no matter their zip code.” — Mayor Bill de Blasio

Charter advocates said it shows the strength of their approach.

“New York City charter public schools are continuing to show us poverty is not destiny in the greatest city in the world. Charter public schools offer the promise of closing the achievement gap and today’s results show they are delivering on that promise. It’s been almost 20 years since New York passed its charter law and these public schools are now out of the experimentation phase: not only should their lessons have more reach, but so should they.” — StudentsFirstNY Executive Director Jenny Sedlis

Success Academy highlighted its push for more school space.

“These results should inspire the de Blasio administration to immediately support Success Academy and other high-performing charters to serve more students in public space.” — Eva Moskowitz, Success Academy founder and CEO

The state’s teachers union called the test scores “virtually meaningless.”

“They don’t count for students or teachers — and they shouldn’t count. They are derived from a broken testing system; are rooted in standards that are no longer being taught; and — for now — are the foundation of a totally discredited teacher evaluation system. The test-and-punish era damaged the trust and confidence of parents in our public education system, as evidenced by the continuing strength of the opt-out movement, and we believe dramatic changes are needed to win them back.” — NYSUT President Andy Pallotta

The city’s teachers union said they represented “progress.”

“Thanks to the efforts of teachers and other staff members across the city, our students are making solid, sustainable progress and the nation’s largest school system is moving in the right direction.” — UFT President Michael Mulgrew

Other groups took the chance to criticize opt-out.

“The results show the right thing to do is to keep moving forward, not tear down high standards and end annual assessments like opponents call for. The continued rise in proficiency scores is a clear sign that high standards are preparing students for future challenges, and parents are increasingly rejecting misguided calls to ‘opt out’ of the state’s annual check-ups. Both of these are good trends for every student in New York, no matter where they are growing up.” — High Achievement New York Executive Director Stephen Sigmund

And some pushed for more dramatic change.

“While we are pleased to see the test scores move in the right direction for New York City students overall, we are concerned about the persistent gaps that exist for students with disabilities and English Language Learners. Teaching students to read is one of the most fundamental tasks of schools.  With only 5.6% of English Language Learners and 10.7% of students with disabilities scoring proficiently in reading, the city must do more to support these students and ensure that they receive high-quality, evidence-based instruction that targets their individual needs.”— Advocates for Children Executive Director Kim Sweet

Testing Time

New York’s state test scores are coming out today. Here’s what we’ll be watching for.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

At long last, New York state English and math test scores are being released today, according to state officials.

Though the tests have been criticized as providing only a snapshot of what students have learned, they are still one of the main tools used to judge the progress of schools, students, and major education initiatives.

Because the tests themselves held steady between 2016 and 2017, the test scores will provide a brief glimpse into whether students are making progress. That could also mean smaller changes than last year, when English scores shot up nearly eight percentage points.

But stable comparisons will only make a temporary appearance in New York education. Next year, the state has announced it will shorten testing by two days, which will no doubt call yearly comparisons into question again.

Here are a few storylines we’ll be watching as the state prepares to release test results:

Is the city’s approach to education policy working? What about signature programs like “Renewal”?

When test results jumped almost eight points in English and roughly one point in math last year, Mayor Bill de Blasio was quick to say they showed “pure hard evidence” his policies were working.

The state’s top education policymakers, however, cautioned that due to changes in the test, an “apples-to-apples” comparison to the year before was impossible. The changes included offering students unlimited time and shortening the exams slightly. This year, state tests were kept consistent in order to make those comparisons possible.

That raises an important question: Without changes to tests, will the results still be good news for Mayor Bill de Blasio and Chancellor Carmen Fariña? It is particularly important for high-profile efforts like the city’s “Renewal” turnaround program, which is entering the year in which the mayor said it should show results.

The only other year under de Blasio’s tenure when the state had fairly consistent testing compared to the prior year was 2015. In that year, test scores inched up one point in math and two points in English.

It may be a good thing if there are only small increases again, said Jennifer Jennings, an associate professor at NYU who has studied testing.

“We hope that they’re gradually inching upwards,” Jennings said. “Very large swings are often evidence that something is off.”

What will happen to opt-out?

For the last two years, about one in five students across New York state have boycotted state tests in protest. That number is significantly lower in New York City — though it has been growing. In 2016, 2.4 percent of city students sat out of the English exams and 2.8 opted out of math in New York City.

The opt-out rate acts as a litmus test of the public’s reaction to state education policy. The movement started in response to a series of state reforms, including adoption of the Common Core and test-based teacher evaluations.

Despite changes the state made last year to appease families upset about the tests, opt-out rates remained relatively consistent. (In fact, they ticked up a bit.) This year, the state has embarked on a process to reshape learning standards and submit a new plan to evaluate schools under the new federal education law.

Will that be enough to defuse some of the tension? Early results indicated opt-out rates may have decreased statewide, but the final tally will likely be released today with state test scores, as it has in past years.

What about equity, which is at the heart of the city’s agenda?

Each year, test results show a disheartening fact: Certain subgroups, such as black and Hispanic students, fare worse than their peers on tests. English learners and students with disabilities also historically score below average.

City and state officials have placed equity at the heart of their agenda. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “Equity and Excellence” initiatives and his approach to turning around struggling schools are predicated on the idea that schools — particularly those in low-income communities — need resources in order to be successful. State officials have put equity at the center of their plan to reshape education policy under the Every Student Succeeds Act.

De Blasio’s critics, however, have argued the best way to address equity issues is tackling segregation in New York City schools. (The mayor released a preliminary diversity plan, but has been fairly slow to endorse integration as a strategy for school improvement.)

So, are the extra resources helping to close the gap between students of color and their white and Asian peers? This year’s test scores will help sort out that question, though many of the mayor’s major initiatives could take years to come to fruition.