funding conundrum

Push to overhaul tests in New York hits a persistent roadblock: cost

PHOTO: Monica Disare
State Commissioner MaryEllen Elia

Education officials in New York are rethinking their plans to overhaul the state’s tests after realizing that they would have to fund the changes on their own.

Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and the Board of Regents have said they are interested in experimenting with project-based assessments, which would mark a bold departure from the state’s current system of testing. Project-based assessments ask students to complete a series of tasks instead of answering traditional multiple-choice or short-answer questions.

The state wanted to develop the trial tests through a provision in the new federal education law that allows seven states to experiment with new exams at a time when criticism of traditional tests is at a high. But state officials did not realize, until recently, that the provision comes without funding.

That could be a deal-breaker for New York since developing tests is an “extremely expensive option,” Elia said.

“There is no money with it, which means that since [the state education department] does not have the money to be able to do that, then without a special allocation, we wouldn’t be able to move forward on being one of those innovative states,” she said.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education confirmed that the pilot does not come with funding because Congress had not approved extra spending. But she said states could reallocate their existing federal funds to support changes to testing.

The realization comes as many advocates call for wide-ranging changes to tests, not just small tweaks. The state’s testing boycott movement, one of the loudest opposition groups, is already disappointed in what its leaders consider meager changes to state tests this year. Other advocates argue that performance-based assessments allow students with disabilities, and others who are traditionally poor test takers, to showcase their talents in a different way.

Elia left the door open to find other funding. But her comments signaled that creating performance-based assessments is now an uphill battle. That is likely to disappoint many advocates of a testing overhaul, including several Regents who have made it a priority to speak out in favor of project-based tests.

Regent Kathleen Cashin has been a vocal supporter of trying out performance-based tests. At Monday’s meeting, she said that type of assessment — which is already in use at a handful of schools in the New York Performance Standards Consortium — can reflect the learning she wants to see in the classroom.

That’s an argument that schools in the consortium have long been making as they have lobbied for the right to add more members and see their model spread more widely.

“I feel like now is our moment, because there is so much dissatisfaction about standardized testing,” John Antush, a teacher at New York City’s City-As-School, said in 2014. “I think the world is on our side.”

Q&A

At this Perry Township school, progress isn’t just about testing, it’s ‘the work we do every single day in our classrooms’

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Principal Star Hardimon, celebrates math progress with fourth-graders at Douglas MacArthur Elementary School in Perry Township.

Chalkbeat is talking with principals across the city at schools that made some of the biggest ISTEP gains in 2017 to explore what was behind their school’s progress and identify possible lessons for other schools.

As Principal Star Hardimon hurried down the hallway of Douglas MacArthur Elementary School, she had her sights set on Tom Stahlhut’s fourth grade classroom, where in just minutes students would be packing up for an assembly.

She carried a gold trophy, which is awarded to the classroom that saw the most improvement on math or English practice tests for that month, part of a new program called Evaluate. Kids were already lining up to leave, but she stepped quickly into the room. One student was already on to her surprise.

“Oh, I know what we win!” he said as he and his classmates gathered closely around Hardimon.

“I actually came to your room today because I brought something along for math Evaluate,” Hardimon said. “Mr. Stahlhut’s class went from a 35 percent to a 49 percent. You are the fourth grade winners!”

The students erupted in cheers, waving their arms and jumping up and down as she presented their trophy. These kinds of celebrations aren’t unusual at MacArthur, Hardimon said, and they were especially significant this year given the gains from last year.

MacArthur, which has 805 students in preschool through fifth grade, moved from a B grade from the state in 2016 to an A in 2017. The school’s test passing rates jumped 10.8 percentage points to 63.3 percent of students passing both English and math exams, higher than the state average. Both figures — passing rates and growth — factor into a school’s letter grade.

Find your school’s 2017 ISTEP scores here.

Almost three-quarters of MacArthur students qualify for subsidized meals, and a little more than one-quarter are learning English as a new language. Many of those English-learners are also refugees from Burma, a trend across the district.

The district as a whole last year was focused on tracking student progress on English and math skills though Evaluate. Students and teachers both track results from tests together each month, using a stoplight model — red, yellow, green — to indicate in their records when a student has mastered, say, dividing fractions, and when they need more practice.

Of the Marion County township elementary schools with the highest ISTEP gains, four were from Perry Township. Every Perry principal who spoke to Chalkbeat this fall mentioned the new data tracking system as key to their improvement.

Below are excerpts from a recent conversation with Hardimon to talk about her school’s progress. The interview was edited for clarity and brevity.

What was your reaction when you learned how much improvement you had made this year?

We fully celebrated. We made a banner and every person, from the custodian, cafeteria — every person that supports kids in our building in any way signed the banner, and every person got a cookie, and we did a cookie with the letter “A” on it. We cheered and had some fun in the lunchroom.

Us earning this A wasn’t about the days we took the test. It was about the work we did every single day in our classrooms, at home, during homework, reading on the weekends — it was everything.

What do you think made the difference?

Well, when we initially got our scores back from the previous year, we were bummed. So we really tried to think about what do we need to do, how do we need to look at this test compared to what we’re doing everyday. And I know it’s a new test and there are some different things, and I don’t want to make excuses, so we just needed to figure out what to do.

Every month I met with grade levels to just talk about the data, talk about what we’re doing, talk about what we look like. And teachers would fill out their data tracking sheets, and everybody was really in tune.

The other thing that we really did is in January, we did an all-hands-on-deck, and for third, fourth and fifth grade we pulled our special education, our E.L., our intervention, and our master teachers to pull groups of students out of classrooms so we could work on specific skills during that intervention time. And we also looked at some of the content area time to really home in so kids could get a real 20 minutes of direct instruction on a particular skill. And that’s something that we had not done in that way. And we’re pretty pleased with it.

I really honestly feel that that effort by everyone to really focus in on that bottom 25 percent (of students) regardless of E.L., special education — whatever their needs are — and our general education kids fell into that as well. I think that’s where we earned those points, was with that group.

What is your school community and culture like?

Douglas MacArthur is a very a community-driven school. I have teachers in the building right now who were students here. I have grandparents who always come in and say, “Oh, my kids and now my grandkids go here.” That comes with a lot of pluses and minuses, but the good thing is the people, they believe in this school. They want the best for kids and they’re really willing — they stay for after school activities and they get involved in all our programs.

Our demographic has been changing. Free and reduced lunch numbers since I’ve been here have increased significantly, and this is my fifth year. Just under half of our kids are English-learners, some coming from as part of our refugee community. We have a very small population of African-Americans, however we have more than when I first came, and then the rest are Caucasian. We do have a small population of Hispanic students, and we have the most number of Hispanic students than we did even five years ago. So our community is definitely changing. It used to be Caucasian, mostly.

What is your approach to leadership?

I feel like i’m a very instructional leader. I try and model behavior in almost everything because if I’m not doing it, then I certainly don’t expect a staff member to do it, or a student to do it. So really modeling and holding myself accountable at a very high level. I’m pretty hard on myself. I think that reflection piece needs to be transparent.

I feel like I try really hard to model a professionalism, a pride in something, working hard everyday. That work ethic is important — it’s important for students to see, it’s important for parents to see. They’re trusting us with their babies, and that’s a pretty big deal, so they have to trust me. I think about my own children, and the thoughts I’ve had about administrators that have led their schools, and that has helped me.

Movers & shakers

Former Tennessee Teacher of the Year will lead citywide reading program

PHOTO: Courtesy of Karen Vogelsang
Karen Vogelsang, the 2015 Tennessee Teacher of the Year, will become the executive director of ARISE2Read.

Three years after winning the state’s top award for teaching, Karen Vogelsang is leaving the classroom to lead a citywide early literacy program.

Vogelsang, a fourth grade teacher at Winridge Elementary School, will become the executive director of ARISE2Read, a Christian volunteer organization that matches reading tutors and mentors with struggling second grade readers.

“When we’re presented as teachers with the opportunity to broaden our impact beyond our school, we need to take that seriously,” Vogelsang told Chalkbeat, adding she initially turned the job down a few months ago. “It’s not just the 80 second graders here at Winridge, but the thousands of second graders in Shelby County Schools.”


Tennessee’s 2015 Teacher of the Year on teaching economically disadvantaged students in Memphis


Vogelsang spent 15 years as a banker before switching careers to education in 2003. She became Tennessee’s Teacher of the Year in 2015. And earlier this year, she stepped into a hybrid role on Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s team to interject a teacher’s voice in policy decisions for Shelby County Schools. Since then, the teacher advisory council has grown to 17 teachers across the district, she said.

Though she won’t be with the district anymore, Vogelsang will still be working toward goals set out by Shelby County Schools in her new position. ARISE2Read, which has mentors in 30 Memphis schools, aims to catch up struggling second grade readers by taking them out of the classroom for 30 minutes once a week with a mentor.

Shelby County Schools has a goal of having 90 percent of third graders reading on grade level by 2025. In 2014, it was only 30 percent with a goal of reaching 60 percent by 2020. According to early 2017 results from a nationally standardized test (MAP), about 50 percent of third grade students were proficient.

“We have a lot of work to do and we can’t do it on the manpower of Shelby County Schools alone,” Vogelsang said. “The fact that this was so focused was part of the attraction (to ARISE2Read) and addresses a need we have in the district.”

The organization also has mentors and students in Fayette, Jackson/Madison, Tipton and Gibson counties and has done training in Knoxville and Houston.

Vogelsang’s class will be turned over to a co-teacher who has been in her classroom since taking on the hybrid role, and she will begin at ARISE2Read on Jan. 4.