ditching days

The state’s final answer? Math and English tests will be cut by one day each

PHOTO: Shannan Muskopf via Flickr

State officials voted to significantly shorten the state’s grades 3-8 English and math assessments on Monday, cutting the tests from three to two days each.

Shortening the tests is a win for teachers, students and parents who argued New York’s classrooms are too focused on preparing for and taking standardized tests. Under the plan approved Monday, shorter tests would hit classrooms in spring 2018.

New York State Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa nodded to these concerns on Monday, saying testing “has been an issue that has consumed our classrooms, our parents, our teachers.”

The state said that in addition to reducing testing days, the move will accomplish three things: Shortening scoring times for teachers, allowing schools to move more quickly to computer-based testing, and implementing a suggestion made by the governor’s Common Core Task Force.

However, the measure did not pass without debate. In a lengthy discussion, several Regents raised concerns – chief among them that shortening tests does not get to the heart of what needs to be fixed.

Shortening the tests, for instance, does not change whether teachers find the test results valuable and can use them to improve instruction, several Regents said. They suggested a broader conversation about the purpose of the tests and what information they yield.

“What is it that we’re attempting to measure?” asked Regent Judith Johnson. “And whatever it was we were attempting to measure with the current SED [State Education Department] assessments, do we actually get that data?”

Others wondered if the board made the decision to shorten the tests too quickly without analyzing potential drawbacks. Changing the tests could impede the state’s ability to make long-term comparisons, for instance, and students might not be able to show the full breadth of their abilities on a shorter exam. The state also said for this year, changes would have to be made without educator input on the number and types of questions.

“I’m troubled by not being convinced that we have sufficient answers at this point,” said Vice Chancellor Andrew Brown, who abstained from the final vote. He wondered aloud if the state had moved too “hastily” on the changes.

Still, this is only an interim step. A document outlining the new policy said these two-day sessions will be in place until there are new assessments aligned to the new “Next Generation Learning Standards,” the state’s revision of Common Core. Simultaneously, state officials are looking at creative ways to change those tests. (They discussed some options on Monday.)

In the meantime, the decision to shorten math and English tests may help offset concerns that assessments are consuming too much time. Opposition to state testing has become a major issue in New York, where one in five families opted out of tests in 2015 and 2016 to protest an overemphasis on tests and the use of standardized assessments to judge teachers and schools.

In response to these concerns, state officials took some items off the test in 2016 and gave students unlimited time to complete questions. Yet, dropping two days of testing marks the most significant change to date.

When the previous reforms were announced, Lisa Rudley, a founding member of the New York State Allies for Public Education, one of the leaders of the opt-out movement, called them “non-change changes.” But reached Sunday, Rudley called the planned elimination of testing days “a step in the right direction.”

The state teachers union also sent out a statement supporting the change. “New York should only test as much as absolutely necessary to meet the federal law’s requirements and not a question more,” said NYSUT President Andy Pallotta. “Today’s vote by the Regents takes us closer to that goal.”

Though the big-picture questions about testing are important, Rosa said, state officials had to make a final decision about the length of next year’s assessments.

“This plane either takes off or stays on the ground,” Rosa said.

Are Children Learning

Second study shows Indianapolis charter students fare better on tests

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

The second study in a week shows strong test scores for students at Indianapolis charter schools, bolstering the claims of advocates in a city where school choice continues to expand.

Indianapolis elementary students who attend mayor-sponsored charter schools beginning in kindergarten — and remain in the same schools — make bigger improvements on state tests than their peers in traditional schools across the city, according to the latest study.

The study contributes to emerging research that suggest that charter schools that are well managed and have good instruction can be successful, said co-author Hardy Murphy, a clinical professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the IUPUI School of Education.

The results of the study indicate Indianapolis charter school students are doing better than they would’ve done if they hadn’t enrolled in charter schools, Murphy said.

“This does not appear to have happened by chance,” he said. “I believe that the school experiences and the instructional teachers of those schools they are enrolled in are actually a big part of the results that we are seeing,”

The educational landscape in Indianapolis is defined by school choice. About 18,000 students who live in Marion County attend charter schools, and thousands more transfer to nearby districts or attend private schools with vouchers, according to state data. In recent years, the state’s largest district, Indianapolis Public Schools, has also become a national model for partnerships with charter schools. That makes understanding school performance essential for parents — but unpacking whether schools actually help boost student achievement can be particularly thorny for researchers.

With this study, Murphy said he and co-author Sandi Cole, director of the Center on Education and Lifelong Learning at Indiana University Bloomington, hope to disentangle one factor that makes studying charter schools difficult: the dips in test scores that students often experience after transferring to new schools. Murphy’s research focuses on students who began in charter schools in kindergarten and compares them to similar students in traditional public schools in Indianapolis.

“It’s time to move beyond the debate about whether or not charter schools are effective and start talking about, when they are effective, why, and for whom?” Murphy said, adding that successful approaches can be used in other settings.

The study focuses solely on students who attend charter schools authorized by the mayor’s office. For the control group, the study included township districts as well as Indianapolis Public Schools. The researchers plan to present their results to the education committee of the Indianapolis City-County Council and the 2019 Conference on Academic Research in Education.

The findings add to a growing body of research on Indianapolis charter schools. Last week, the Stanford-based group CREDO released a report that found that students at charter schools had test score gains that mirrored the state average, while Indianapolis Public Schools students made smaller gains on math and reading tests than their peers across the state. Another recent study found that when students moved to charter schools their test scores held steady.

To Do

Tennessee’s new ed chief says troubleshooting testing is first priority

PHOTO: (Caiaimage/Robert Daly)

Penny Schwinn knows that ensuring a smooth testing experience for Tennessee students this spring will be her first order of business as the state’s new education chief.

Even before Gov.-elect Bill Lee announced her hiring on Thursday, she was poring over a recent report by the state’s chief investigator about what went wrong with TNReady testing last spring and figuring out her strategy for a different outcome.

“My first days will be spent talking with educators and superintendents in the field to really understand the scenario here in Tennessee,” said Schwinn, who’s been chief deputy commissioner of academics in Texas since 2016.

“I’ll approach this problem with a healthy mixture of listening and learning,” she added.

Schwinn’s experience with state assessment programs in Texas and in Delaware — where she was assistant secretary of education — is one of the strengths cited by Lee in selecting her for one of his most critical cabinet posts.

The Republican governor-elect has said that getting TNReady right is a must after three straight years of missteps in administration and scoring in Tennessee’s transition to online testing. Last year, technical disruptions interrupted so many testing days that state lawmakers passed emergency legislation ordering that poor scores couldn’t be used to penalize students, teachers, schools, or districts.

Schwinn, 36, recalls dealing with testing headaches during her first days on the job in Texas.

“We had testing disruptions. We had test booklets mailed to the wrong schools. We had answer documents in testing booklets. We had online administration failures,” she told Chalkbeat. “From that, we brought together teachers, superintendents, and experts to figure out solutions, and we had a near-perfect administration of our assessment the next year.”

What she learned in the process: the importance of tight vendor management, including setting clear expectations of what’s expected.

She plans to use the same approach in Tennessee, working closely with people in her new department and Questar Assessment, the state’s current vendor.

“Our job is to think about how to get online testing as close to perfect as possible for our students and educators, and that is going to be a major focus,” she said.

The test itself has gotten good reviews in Tennessee; it’s the online miscues that have many teachers and parents questioning the switch from paper-and-pencil exams. Schwinn sees no choice but to forge ahead online and is quick to list the benefits.

“If you think about how children learn and access information today, many are getting that information from hand-held devices and computers,” she said, “so reflecting that natural experience in our classrooms is incredibly important.”

Schwinn said computerized testing also holds promise for accommodating students with disabilities and provides for a more engaging experience for all students.

“When you look at the multiple-choice tests that we took in school and compare that to an online platform where students can watch videos, perform science experiments, do drag-and-drop and other features, students are just more engaged in the content,” she said.

“It’s a more authentic experience,” she added, “and therefore a better measure of learning.”

Schwinn plans to examine Tennessee’s overall state testing program to look for ways to reduce the number of minutes dedicated to assessment and also to elevate transparency.

She also will oversee the transition when one or more companies take over the state’s testing program beginning next school year. Former Commissioner Candice McQueen ordered a new request for proposals from vendors to provide paper testing for younger students and online testing for older ones. State officials have said they hope to award the contract by spring.

In Texas, a 2018 state audit criticized Schwinn’s handling of two major education contracts, including a no-bid special education contract that lost the state more than $2 million.

In Tennessee, an evaluation committee that includes programmatic, assessment, and technology experts will help to decide the new testing contract, and state lawmakers on the legislature’s Government Operations Committee plan to provide another layer of oversight.

Spring testing in Tennessee is scheduled to begin on April 15. You can learn more about TNReady on the state education department’s website.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information about problems with the handling of two education contracts in Texas.