reaction roulette

Meaningless? Cause for celebration? Interpretations of newest test scores run the gamut

PHOTO: Ed Reed for the Office of Mayor Bill de Blasio
Mayor Bill de Blasio.

New York state’s latest test scores are completely meaningless — or the key to understanding whether any students are learning.

The city’s modest gains are the result of a year of rolling back the education policies of the Bloomberg administration, adding teacher training time, and empowering district leaders — or they demonstrate just why those policies are doomed to fail.

On test-score day, it all depends who you talk to.

To be sure, there are many ways to interpret the city’s scores, which increased by one percentage point in math and two points in English this year, continuing a slow climb while revealing persistent disparities. But for the elected officials, charter-school leaders, and big-spending advocacy groups with a stake in New York’s education debates, the results are used to bolster almost any argument.

At a press conference at P.S. 19 Asher Levy in the East Village, Mayor Bill de Blasio said the continued progress was cause for celebration, and credited his administration’s focus on extra time for professional development for teachers and a shake-up of the education department’s structure with contributing to the gains.

“The building blocks that we put in place all are contributing and will contribute much more going forward to the progress we’ll make,” de Blasio said, calling it a “great day for New York City.”

Last week, the mayor played down the relative importance of state test results, and Chancellor Carmen Fariña has tried to reduce the pressure schools feel to rapidly improve scores. But de Blasio will also soon have to win over a governor and state legislature that gave him just one year of control over the school system, and officials took pains Wednesday to link the increases to their new education policies while also acknowledging longer-term gains.

“We will continue to make superintendents accountable for what happens in their districts, principals accountable for what happens in their schools and teachers accountable for what happens in their classrooms,” Fariña said, referencing the recent restructuring.

Meanwhile, Karen Magee, president of the New York State United Teachers, which encouraged parents to opt their children out of the state tests, said “it would be a huge mistake to read anything into these test results.” Especially since one in five eligible students statewide declined to take the tests this year, the scores “aren’t worth the paper they are printed on,” she said.

Another union leader, Michael Mulgrew, of the city’s United Federation of Teachers, found some value in the results.

“We’re seeing progress, particularly in reading, thanks to a city administration that really cares about student learning, increased availability of appropriate curriculum and training, and hard work by teachers and students,” Mulgrew said in a statement.

Eva Moskowitz, the CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools and a political rival of de Blasio’s, found different reasons to celebrate. Of the 3,000 Success students who took the state tests, most of whom are black and Hispanic, 93 percent passed the math exams and 68 percent passed the English exam, beating city averages for white students by roughly 40 and 20 points, respectively.

“These results prove that the educational inequality that traps thousands of New York City’s children of color in poverty can be eliminated, if only our elected officials muster the political will,” Moskowitz said.

Allies of Moskowitz were more pointed in trying to tie de Blasio’s policies to the continued poor performance of black and Hispanic students.

“Unless Mayor de Blasio reverses policies that deny students access to high-quality schools, he risks presiding over a failing schools crisis defined by educational inequality,” said Jeremiah Kittredge, executive director of Families for Excellent Schools, which organizes parent rallies for Success Academy.

The reaction from other charter advocates was measured. The charter sector often points to its students’ performance on state tests as evidence for why the city needs more charter schools. This year, the city’s charter schools outperformed the citywide averages in math but lagged in English, and both numbers improved by a smaller margin than the city’s.

Dave Levin, founder of the KIPP network of charter schools, noted that its overall proficiency rates exceeded the city’s growth by three points in English and four points in math.

“While we are proud of these academic gains, we have more work to do,” Levin said in a statement.

James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center, noted that charter schools bested district schools when comparing the results of black and Hispanic students.

“While proficiency rates are still not as high as they need to be in charter or district schools,” he said in a statement, “this is definitive proof that charter schools serve a critical role in meeting the needs of traditionally underserved populations and it shows why they are in such high demand from families in long underserved communities.”

Meanwhile, Advocates for Children of New York called the proficiency rates for the city’s English language learners — 4 percent in English, under 15 percent in math — “devastating.” Proficiency rates among students with disabilities actually declined slightly in math, the organization noted, and achievement gaps between those students and their peers in general education were growing.

“This is unacceptable,” it said in a statement.

Also up for debate was how to interpret the state’s acknowledgement that 20 percent of eligible students statewide opted out of taking the tests, up from 5 percent a year ago. State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia stressed that while 1.1 million students were eligible to take the tests, and about 200,000 did not, the state still had 900,000 valid test scores — valuable information for teachers and schools.

Others, including supporters of the tests, said the huge opt-out numbers could call the usefulness of the results into question.

The varying numbers of test-takers “creates an apples-to-oranges comparison” between years, said Steven Sigmund, who heads High Achievement New York, a coalition of groups that support the New York’s implementation of the Common Core standards.

Derrell Bradford, whose organization NYCAN is part of High Achievement New York, said students who took the tests were still in a better position to get the help they need to succeed.

“Everyone else just has a best guess about college and career readiness,” Bradford said.

Indiana's 2018 legislative session

Indiana’s plan to measure high schools with a college prep test is on hold for two years

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Thanks to last-minute legislative wrangling, it’s unclear what test Indiana high schoolers will take for the next two years to measure what they have learned in school.

Lawmakers were expected to approve a House bill proposing Indiana use a college entrance exam starting in 2019 as yearly testing for high schoolers, at the same time state works to replace its overall testing system, ISTEP. But the start date for using the SAT or ACT was pushed back from 2019 to 2021, meaning it’s unclear how high schoolers will be judged for the next two years.

This is the latest upheaval in testing as the state works to replace ISTEP in favor of the new ILEARN testing system, a response to years of technical glitches and scoring problems. While a company has already proposed drafting exams for measuring the performance of Indiana students, officials now need to come up with a solution for the high school situation. ILEARN exams for grades 3-8 are still set to begin in 2019.

“Our next steps are to work with (the state board) to help inform them as they decide the plan for the next several years,” said Adam Baker, spokesman for the Indiana Department of Education. “We take concerns seriously and we will continue doing all we can to support schools to manage the transition well.”

The delay in switching from the 10th grade ISTEP to college entrance exams for measuring high school students was proposed Wednesday night as lawmakers wrapped up the 2018 legislative session. Rep. Bob Behning, the bill’s author, said the change came out of a desire to align the testing plan with recommendations on high school tests from a state committee charged with rewriting Indiana’s graduation requirements.

It’s just the latest road bump since the legislature voted last year to scrap ISTEP and replace it with ILEARN, a plan that originally included a computer-adaptive test for grades 3-8 and end-of-course exams for high-schoolers in English, algebra and biology. Indiana is required by the federal government to test students each year in English and math, and periodically, in science.

The Indiana Department of Education started carrying out the plan to move to ILEARN over the summer and eventually selected the American Institutes for Research to write the test, a company that helped create the Common-Core affiliated Smarter balanced test. AIR’s proposal said they were prepared to create tests for elementary, middle and high school students.

Then, the “graduation pathways” committee, which includes Behning and Sen. Dennis Kruse, the Senate Education Committee chairman, upended the plan by suggesting the state instead use the SAT or ACT to test high schoolers. The committee said the change would result in a yearly test that has more value to students and is something they can use if they plan to attend college. Under their proposal, the change would have come during the 2021-22 school year.

When lawmakers began the 2018 session, they proposed House Bill 1426, which had a 2019 start. This bill passed out of both chambers and the timeline was unchanged until Wednesday.

In the meantime, the Indiana Department of Education and the Indiana State Board of Education must decide what test high schoolers will take in 2019 and 2020 and how the state as a whole will transition from an Indiana-specific 10th grade ISTEP exam to a college entrance exam.

It’s not clear what approach state education officials will take, but one option is to go forward with AIR’s plan to create high school end-of-course exams. The state will already need a U.S. Government exam, which lawmakers made an option for districts last year, and likely will need one for science because college entrance exams include little to no science content. It could make sense to move ahead with English and math as well, though it will ultimately be up to the state board.

Some educators and national education advocates have raised concerns about whether an exam like the SAT or ACT is appropriate for measuring schools, though 14 states already do.

Jeff Butts, superintendent of Wayne Township, told state board members last week that using the college entrance exams seemed to contradict the state’s focus on students who go straight into the workforce and don’t plan to attend college. And a report from Achieve, a national nonprofit that helps states work on academic standards and tests, cautioned states against using the exams for state accountability because they weren’t designed to measure how well students have mastered state standards.

“The danger in using admissions tests as accountability tests for high school is that many high school teachers will be driven to devote scarce course time to middle school topics, water down the high school content they are supposed to teach in mathematics, or too narrowly focus on a limited range of skills in (English),” the report stated.

House Bill 1426 would also combine Indiana’s four diplomas into a single diploma with four “designations” that mirror current diploma tracks. In addition, it would change rules for getting a graduation waiver and create an “alternate diploma” for students with severe special needs.The bill would also allow the Indiana State Board of Education to consider alternatives to Algebra 2 as a graduation requirement and eliminates the requirement that schools give the Accuplacer remediation test.

It next heads to Gov. Eric Holcomb’s desk to be signed into law.

Keep Out

What’s wrong with auditing all of Colorado’s education programs? Everything, lawmakers said.

Students at DSST: College View Middle School work on a reading assignment during an English Language Development class (Photo By Andy Cross / The Denver Post).

State Rep. Jon Becker pitched the idea as basic good governance. The state auditor’s office examines all sorts of state programs, but it never looks at education, the second largest expenditure in Colorado’s budget and a sector that touches the lives of hundreds of thousands of children. So let the auditor take a good, long look and report back to the legislature on which programs are working and which aren’t.

The State Board of Education hated this idea. So did Democrats. And Republicans. The House Education Committee voted 12-0 this week to reject Becker’s bill, which would have required a systematic review of all educational programs enacted by the legislature and in place for at least six years. Even an amendment that would have put the state board in the driver’s seat couldn’t save it.

As he made his case, Becker, a Republican from Fort Morgan in northeastern Colorado, was careful not to name any specific law he would like to see changed.

“I don’t want people to say, ‘Oh, he’s coming after my ox,’” he told the House Education Committee this week. “I know how this works. And that’s not the intent of this bill. It’s to look at all programs.”

But members of the committee weren’t buying it.

State Rep. Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat, pressed school board members who testified in favor of the bill to name a law or program they were particularly excited to “shed some light on.” If there’s a law that’s a problem, he asked, wouldn’t it make more sense to drill down just on that law?

They tried to demur.

“I feel like you’re trying to get us to say, we really want you to go after 191 or we really want you to go after charter schools,” said Cathy Kipp, a school board member in the Poudre School District who also serves on the board of the Colorado Association of School Boards. “That’s not what this is about.”

Kipp said committee members seemed to be “scared that if their pet programs get looked at, they’ll be eliminated. Why be scared? Shouldn’t we want these programs to be looked at?”

But proponents’ own testimony seemed to suggest some potential targets, including Senate Bill 191, Colorado’s landmark teacher effectiveness law.

As Carrie Warren-Gully, president of the school boards association, argued for the benefits of an independent evaluation of education programs, she offered up an example: The schedules of administrators who have to evaluate dozens of teachers under the law are more complicated than “a flight plan at DIA,” and districts have to hire additional administrators just to manage evaluations, cutting into the resources available for students, she said.

The debate reflected ongoing tensions between the state and school districts over Colorado’s complex system for evaluating schools and teachers and holding them accountable for student achievement. The systematic review bill was supported by the Colorado Association of School Boards, the Colorado Association of School Executives, and the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance.

Lawmakers repeatedly told school officials that if they have problems with particular parts of existing legislation, they should come to them for help and will surely find allies.

Exasperated school officials responded by pointing to the past failure of legislation that would have tweaked aspects of evaluations or assessments — but the frustration was mutual.

“Just because people don’t agree with one specific approach doesn’t mean people aren’t willing to come to the table,” said committee chair Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat.

There were other concerns, including the possibility that this type of expansive evaluation would prove expensive and create yet another bureaucracy.

“When have we ever grown government to shrink it?” asked state Rep. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican. “There’s a paradox here.”

And state Rep. James Wilson, a Salida Republican who is also a former teacher and school superintendent, questioned whether the auditor’s office has the expertise to review education programs. He also asked what standard would be applied to evaluate programs that are implemented differently in more than 170 school districts across the state.

“If it’s effective more often than not, will they keep it?” Wilson asked. “If it doesn’t work in a third of them, it’s gone?”

State Board of Education members had similar questions when they decided earlier this year that this bill was a bad idea. Many of Colorado’s education laws don’t have clear measures of success against which their performance can be evaluated.

The READ Act, for example, stresses the importance of every child learning to read well in early elementary school and outlines the steps that schools have to take to measure reading ability and provide interventions to help students who are falling behind their peers.

But how many children need to improve their reading and by how much for the READ Act to be deemed effective or efficient? That’s not outlined in the legislation.

Proponents of the bill said outside evaluators could identify best practices and spread them to other districts, but state board members said they already monitor all of these programs on an ongoing basis and already produce thousands of pages of reports on each of these programs that go to the legislature every year. In short, they say they’re on the case.

“The state board, I can assure you, are very devoted and intent to make sure that we follow, monitor, and watch the progress of any programs that go through our department and make sure they’re enacted in the best way possible within the schools,” board member Jane Goff said.