fuzzy math

The state is tinkering with Regents exam scores, but advocates say that means prior test-takers lose out

Some teachers and advocates are concerned about changes to the scoring system for the algebra Regents exam that could result in higher scores, by one measure, for this year’s test-takers. They say the adjustments, announced by the state in June, put students who took the test in 2014 or 2015 at a disadvantage.

“If I were a student [who took the test last year] I’d want to retake the Regents this year,” said Megan Roberts, the executive director of Math for America.

When the state switched to tougher Common Core exams, officials vowed that they would make the tests harder, but preserve roughly the same passing percentages. But last year, the first in which all students had to take the exam, the percentage of students who passed fell by nine percent, causing anxiety for high school teachers and students.

In June, officials said they were performing “scale maintenance” in order to keep passing percentages roughly equal to what they were before Common Core. Students had to answer about two fewer questions correctly in order to pass the exam this June, though that could partly indicate a harder test.

Regardless, the “scale” scoring, which plots student scores on a scale of 0 to 100, appears to have gotten easier. The number of raw score points it took to earn an 80, for example, dropped 18 points this year.

State officials said the focus on scaled test scores is misplaced since those scores are not how they mark progress. Instead, they’re encouraging students to concentrate on their 1-5 scores. Using those, there is a less dramatic drop of 5 points in what it takes to get a level 4, the official marker of college readiness.

But some advocates worry that message will get lost in translation. It’s hard to tell students to ignore scale scores, they say, if they’re still being seen by students, teachers and colleges.

“Do students, parents and teachers really understand that they shouldn’t ever be looking at those numbers?” asked Kim Nauer, education research director at the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs.

The tinkering and backlash are an early indication of how challenging it will be to both increase the rigor of a diploma and simultaneously keep graduation rates stable.

The students are “getting caught in an experiment,” said education consultant David Rubel, “These are real kids, and now they’re being tossed around by various policy directives of NYSED.”

try try again

Feds to Colorado: You must count students who opt out of standardized tests

Seniors at Fairview High School in Boulder protested a standardized test in November 2014. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Colorado’s policy of not penalizing schools that fail to meet federal requirements for student participation in state tests isn’t going over well with the federal government.

The U.S. Department of Education told state officials in a letter Friday that the policy is not acceptable. Colorado faces losing millions in federal funding if it doesn’t change course.

Federal officials flagged the opt-out policy in a response to the state’s plan to comply with the nation’s new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The federal government’s feedback to states is being closely watched for signs of how the department, under Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, enforces a law that was meant to shift more decision-making away from the federal government and back to states.

“It didn’t come as a surprise,” Pat Chapman, the Colorado Department of Education’s executive director of federal programs, said of the feedback. “There’s a need to reconcile state board, state legislature and federal requirements and policies.”

In 2015, Colorado became a national epicenter for the testing opt-out movement, with thousands of students refusing to take state-required tests they didn’t see as valuable.

The State Board of Education, reasoning that it wasn’t fair to punish schools for something not in their control, adopted a policy forbidding the state education department from lowering schools’ quality ratings or otherwise punishing them for high refusal rates.

Previously, schools and districts could have seen their quality ratings lowered if they failed to annually test 95 percent of students in math and English. Schools that receive the state’s lowest quality ratings for five consecutive years face state intervention.

Education Commissioner Katy Anthes is expected to brief the state board at its regularly scheduled meeting this week on possible responses. The state has until Aug. 24 to submit a revised state plan or ask for an extension.

State board Chairwoman Angelika Schroeder, a Boulder Democrat, said Monday she doesn’t expect the board to take any formal action on rethinking the board’s policy this week. She declined to elaborate further.

“The board should have an opportunity to talk about this before I publicly comment,” she said.

Board member Steve Durham, a Colorado Springs Republican who championed the policy, also held back Monday.

“I’m not sure what all the options available are,” he said. “We’ll wait and see what the staff’s analysis is and go from there.”

The state’s unique opt-out policy wasn’t the federal government’s only criticism.

The U.S. Department of Education also raised concern about the state’s long-term academic goals, using an average of test scores to determine school quality and monitoring how well students are learning English as a second language.

The federal department is asking the state to resubmit long-term academic goals for particular student groups, including different ethnic groups and students with disabilities.

In the current version of the plan, all student groups are expected to have the same average test score in six years, which is slightly higher than the state’s current average. The goals seem confusing and unattainable. For example, students with disabilities would need to make unprecedented progress, while Asian students would need to lose academic ground in order for the state to meet its targets.

As part of its plan, Colorado also proposed rating schools based on averages from English and math test scores, not how many students met grade-level proficiency as it did in the past.

While the use of average test scores was applauded by some, it isn’t flying with the federal education department. It wants Colorado to better explain how using average scores relates to measuring whether students are at grade level.

Moreover, U.S. officials want an assurance from Colorado that students who are far above grade-level won’t “overcompensate” for students who are not proficient. In other words, the department wants to make sure high-performers aren’t masking serious problems.

Dale Chu, vice president of policy and operations for America Succeeds, a nonprofit of business leaders that support education reform, helped a coalition of education groups review state plans independently of U.S. education department. The group, the Collaborative For Student Success, was critical of Colorado’s switch to using an average of test scores.

“There’s no sense of proficiency,” he said. “There has to be some sort of sense that kids are coming out school being able to read and compute and be on a successful path.”

Finally, the U.S. education department is also seeking more clarity on how the state is tracking the progress of students learning English as a second language. It said the state needs to provide a clear timeline on when it can provide specific goals and more detail about how the state will use data to determine school quality.

Chapman said the state education department did not have the data available to provide the federal government the information it needed. However, that’s changing and he expects that portion of the plan to be accepted.

The Every Student Succeeds Act was signed by President Barack Obama in 2015. The law required states to develop plans to outline how it would use federal dollars to improve schools, teacher quality and boost language proficiency for students learning English as a second language.

Pushback from the U.S. education department to states has been more stern than many education policy observers expected given DeVos’s support of school choice and local control.

Chapman said the federal department has been helpful.

“They’re asked to uphold the letter of the law, he said. “I do think they’re approaching it in anyway that they’re being helpful to states to write a plan that’s consistent with statue.”

Job One

Nashville’s grieving mayor visits schools on first day back to work

PHOTO: Michael Bunch/Metro Nashville
Nashville Mayor Megan Barry visits with a student at Buena Vista Elementary School on Monday, her first day back to work after the death of her only son to a drug overdose.

When Nashville Mayor Megan Barry came back to work this week after losing her only child to a drug overdose, her first stop was school.

She handed out backpacks and hugged children as they arrived at Buena Vista Elementary School on the opening day of a new school year. She also dropped by Pearl-Cohn High School to chat with students in the hallways.

“That was really meaningful and special to me,” Barry told reporters later, “because the first day of school in our household was always a joyous occasion. Max loved school, and our ritual was always that we would take a picture every day of the first day of school.”

Barry’s first order of business was both symbolic and therapeutic for the mayor, whose 22-year-old son died July 29 in Littleton, Colorado, where he had been working in construction.

“It was really great to be with kids this morning,” she said during an emotional news conference from her office on Monday. “The last nine days has been pretty — I don’t even have words.”

She noted that “every first day of school is a new beginning.”

In Nashville, home of the state’s second largest school district, Barry doesn’t control the schools, but she’s used her bully pulpit to help reshape public education since taking office in 2015. She worked with the school board to jump-start a misfired search for the city’s next schools director, ending with the hiring last year of Shawn Joseph, a top administrator from Maryland’s Prince George’s County.

She’s also sought to put 10,000 Nashville youth to work with “paid, meaningful internships” through an initiative that she says was inspired by a conversation with her son. He had bemoaned having to use his family connections to secure an internship while he was in college.

“My goal after that conversation with Max was to open the door for all of our kids in Nashville,” recalled Barry, who has pushed to combat rising youth violence by creating more activities outside of school.

Barry with Max as a youngster

Now, she has another new mission: fighting opioid abuse, after an autopsy showed that Max died from a combination of several drugs, including opioids.

“I don’t want his death to define his life, but we have to have a frank conversation about how he died,” she said. “The reality is that Max overdosed on drugs.”

“This is not an unfamiliar community and nationwide conversation,” she said, noting that Nashville alone had 245 overdoses involving opioids last year. “It’s a national epidemic.”