an objective measure

As new teacher evaluation system looms, Tisch defends need for state tests

Catherine Nolan, speaking to Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch (right) and Regent Kathleen Cashin.

As state education officials have been tasked with crafting a new teacher evaluation system, Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch on Tuesday continued to defend the need for a state test as a necessary measure to address longstanding inequities.

State test results “scream to anyone who looks at them carefully for the needs of access and opportunity for students living in our high-needs districts,” she said. “We need an objective measure and that objective measure is a state test.”

One week before schools will start to administer the state’s annual reading exam, Tisch took issue with the motives of those supporting the movement to opt students out of taking the tests and blamed high levels of student stress on “angry rhetoric” coming from adults.

“I truly believe that if the adults in the situation and in the room start to work with each other — calm down a little bit — I think the stress levels would be greatly diminished,” she said on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show Tuesday.

Tisch has spoken out against the opt-out movement before, calling it a “terrible mistake,” but her comments Tuesday went a step further by calling out Karen Magee, president of New York State United Teachers, for openly urging parents to “opt out.”

While city teachers union leaders have avoided making similar statements, Tisch cautioned against the possible implications of endorsing the movement for the purpose of parent choice.

If the teachers union comes out in support of opting out of annual state tests, “as Karen Magee at NYSUT has,” Tisch said, “I would say… if it’s parents’ rights, let’s put it all on the table. Let’s not just pick one thing and say, ‘We want parents to have a choice there.’”

“Why don’t we talk about parents whose kids don’t have a choice other than to go to a failing school or to have a teacher that hasn’t been effective or prepared effectively?”

Tisch also warned that a mass opt-out of the state tests could result in New York moving away from its own locally-designed exams and be forced to adopt the Common Core-aligned tests created by one of two groups of states.

“In order for us to be able to have a viable state test, we need a viable number of students in every district showing up to be tested,” she said.

Last year, tens of thousands of students across New York sat out the state exams, as did more than 1,900 in the city — a tiny fraction of the 410,000 students who took the tests, but a 450 percent increase over the previous year.

State test scores will continue to play a prominent role in how a teacher is rated, which will also take into account at least one observation by the teacher’s principal, and one observation from an “independent” evaluator.

Under the budget agreement, the ratings will also be tied to teacher tenure eligibility and be used to make it easier to fire a teacher who repeatedly earns “ineffective” ratings.

“Not one teacher in this state has yet been let go, to the best of my knowledge, because of anything having to do with evaluations,” Tisch said.

But Tisch reiterated that “nowhere in the new law” does it require that 50 percent of a teacher’s overall rating must be based on student growth on state standardized tests, which is the measure that Gov. Andrew Cuomo was hoping to achieve.

matrix_cb
Final ratings under a new default evaluation system will be determined by matching ratings from testing and observation subcomponents according to the matrix above.

The governor and legislative leaders are “all over the map” when it comes to the new rating system, Tisch said. “They are looking to us to bring a grown up’s perspective to a very complicated issue… This has been set up so no matter who we disappoint, it’s our fault.”

The state education commissioner (for now, a vacant position) and Tisch have been tasked with settling the details of the new scoring system by the end of June — though they require approval from the full 17-member board.

And while the governor’s office has been referring to the state education department’s role in developing the evaluation system as “purely administrative,” Tisch said the budget language provides an “enormous opportunity” to speak with teachers, principals, superintendents and parents about “where we’ve been” and “where we need to go.”

“I hope that the state education department will be able to become the table of reason to manage this in an appropriate way, so that educators feel good about it, parents are informed about it, and the system is allowed to go on and put all of this noise and nonsense behind them,” she said.

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Cap and gown

Graduation rates in Michigan – and Detroit’s main district — are up, but are most students ready for college?

The state superintendent had some good news to share Wednesday about last year’s four-year graduation rates: They are at their highest level in years.

What’s not clear is whether new graduates are being adequately prepared for college.

Slightly more than 80 percent of the state’s high school students graduated last year, an increase of about half a percentage point from the previous year. It was news state education leaders cheered.

“An 80 percent statewide graduation rate is a new watermark for our schools. They’ve worked hard to steadily improve,” state Superintendent Brian Whiston said in a statement.

“This is another important step in helping Michigan become a Top 10 education state in 10 years. We aren’t there yet, so we need to keep working and moving forward,” he said.

But statewide, the number of students ready for college based on their scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test was about 35 percent, underscoring the fact that graduation rate is not necessarily a great measure of school success. Schools looking to raise graduation rates can find ways to make it easier for students to earn credits toward graduation and, unlike some states, Michigan does not require students to pass graduation exams.

The result is that more students are graduating from high school — but might not be ready to do college work.

In Detroit, graduation rates in the city’s main district remained largely steady, with a little more than three-quarters of its students graduating after four years. But the number of students who were ready for college dropped almost a point to 12.3 percent last year. While most students take the SAT in 11th grade as part of the state’s school testing program, that’s an indication students graduating from high school may not have been adequately prepared for college.

The state dropout rate remained largely unchanged at almost nine percent.

Detroit’s main district had the highest four-year graduation rates compared to other large districts, but more district students dropped out of school than in the previous year. More than 10 percent of Detroit students dropped out of high school in the 2016-17 school year, a slight increase from last year, according to state data.

But in spite of steady dropout rates and relatively low college readiness numbers, state officials were upbeat about the graduation results.

“This is the first time the statewide four-year graduation rate has surpassed 80 percent since we started calculating rates by cohorts eleven years ago,” said Tom Howell, director of the Michigan Center for Educational Performance and Information, which tracks school data. “This increase is in line with how the statewide graduation rate has been trending gradually upward.”

Search below to see the four-year graduation rates and college readiness rates at all Michigan high schools.

testing testing

New York has debated ‘innovative’ tests. But what does that actually mean?

In New York, the annual state tests still mean the usual multiple-choice questions and short writing prompts — and that’s not likely to change soon.

State officials recently chose not to apply to join a federal “innovative testing” program, which would have triggered an overhaul of the math and English tests that students in grades 3 to 8 take each year. (They cited the cost and difficulty of rolling out the new tests on the tight timeline required by the program.)

Yet in a state where nearly one in five families choose to boycott the exams — which many say do a poor job measuring students’ learning — pressure remains on policymakers to come up with new and better tests. They appear to have some interest in moving in that direction: The state’s education policy-making body, the Board of Regents, has established a workgroup focused partly on testing, and the state education commissioner has expressed interest in alternative graduation exams and new types of science and social studies tests.

If New York does pursue “innovative” assessments, what might they look like?

To answer that, we found four real-world examples of alternative assessments — two used in New York City, and two from other states. While each has its drawbacks, they show that “testing” doesn’t have to mean shading in bubbles with a No. 2 pencil.

Example 1: Tasks used to evaluate teacher effectiveness (New York City)

Who takes them? Students in all grades, in subjects including math, English and the arts

What are they? Essays and short tasks

As part of New York City’s teacher evaluation system, schools can choose from a menu of assessments meant to measure how much teachers have helped their students learn. Among those “Measures of Student Learning” are tasks that require students to make an argument in a written essay by citing examples from texts they are provided.

Other kinds of “MOSL’s,” as they’re often called, go beyond essays. Teachers can administer “running records,” where they assess individual students’ English skills as they read a series of texts out loud. A visual-arts assessment asks students to draw a still-life picture.

What do they look like? A 12th-grade English test from several years ago asks students to answer the question, “Should individuals enlist in the military and fight for their country?” In order to make their case, students must read and cite a poem and a portion of President Woodrow Wilson’s address to Congress.

What are the drawbacks? They are similar to standardized tests

The city teachers union negotiated with the city to include these tests in teacher evaluations, yet many teachers and school leaders have complained that they take up too much class time. Others question whether the assessments fairly measure students’ ability in subjects like art.

“Art is subjective,” said Jake Jacobs, a middle-school art teacher at Bronx Park Middle School. “If somebody is drawing something, who’s to say whether that drawing is good or bad?”  

Example 2: Projects required for graduation (New York City)

Who takes them? Students at 38 New York City high schools in the “Performance Standards Consortium”

What are they? Months-long projects

The consortium was established in the 1990s to bring together New York City educators seeking an alternative to traditional standardized tests. Today, schools in that group have state permission to substitute long-term projects for several of the Regents exams that students must pass in order to graduate. At those schools, each student must complete a literary essay, solve a complex math problem, design a science experiment, and complete a research paper in order to earn a diploma.

In their junior or senior years, they present their projects to a panel of judges, who evaluate whether the work meets the consortium’s requirements.

Sample questions: According to consortium materials, one student wrote a paper titled, “What Role Do Black Characters Play in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and Flannery O’Connor’s Short Stories?” Another produced a science experiment called, “How Does a Garter Snake Detect Its Prey?” Another wrote a research paper titled, “Who Or What Is Responsible for the End of Slavery in the United States?”

What are the drawbacks? Heavy workload for educators and students

Schools in the consortium must spend a lot of time training teachers to oversee students’ projects and ensuring that the work is held to the same standards across the consortium. For that reason, even Ann Cook, executive director and co-founder of the New York Performance Standards Consortium, says it would be difficulty to spread this model across the entire state.

“Could every kid in the state be doing this? I’d probably say no,” Cook said. “And the reason is that you have to have a faculty that is interested and wants to do it. They should want to opt into this because it takes a lot of work in the school.”

Example 3: Real-world problems (New Hampshire)

Who takes them? Students in grades K-12 in math, English, and science

What are they? Tasks based on real-world scenarios

New Hampshire students take traditional standardized exams once in elementary, middle, and high school. In the other years, they take alternative assessments after they finish studying units tied to the state standards. Called “Performance Assessment of Competency Education,” or PACE tests, they challenge students to apply skills they learn in class to real-world problems.

Sample question: After learning how to calculate volume, high school geometry students are given a task where they assume the role of a town planner. Their job is to design a water tower that can hold enough water to support the town’s growing population, but which requires a limited amount of material to build. The project, which students typically finish in a couple hours, must include a cover page, models or scale drawings, the calculations students made, and a written analysis of their design.

What are the drawbacks? Costly and difficult to scale

Though New Hampshire started experimenting with the “PACE” tests more than three years ago, they still have only been rolled out in a fraction of the state’s school districts. The state also had to rely partly on philanthropic funds to develop the expensive assessments, according to Scott Marion, executive director of the Center for Assessment, who helped New Hampshire with its testing experiment.

Because of their high cost and difficulty to roll out statewide, Marion advised New York against adopting similar tests.

Example 4: Student-work portfolios (Vermont)

Who takes them? Previously, students in grades 4 and 8 in math and English

What are they? Portfolios of student work

In the early 1990s, Vermont schools began collecting pieces of student work throughout the year. Students stuffed portfolios with letters they’d written, poems, and math problems, which were then sent to the state for review.

Sample questions:  In a fourth-grade writing portfolio, students had to include their best piece of writing, a letter explaining what they’d written, a written response to a book or current issue, and a poem, short story, or personal narrative, according to a 1992 report co-authored by Daniel Koretz, an education professor at Harvard.

What are the drawbacks? Hard to standardize

Vermont eventually scrapped the portfolio system. Officials decided that it was too hard to standardize them: The difficulty of the teacher-created math problems that students completed varied from school to school, for instance, and some students got help from their parents on certain projects while others didn’t, according to Koretz.

You can’t realistically compare a piece a student did alone,” he said, “with one that another student did with help from a parent — say, one with a degree in physics.”