Testing Time

New York’s state test scores are coming out today. Here’s what we’ll be watching for.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

At long last, New York state English and math test scores are being released today, according to state officials.

Though the tests have been criticized as providing only a snapshot of what students have learned, they are still one of the main tools used to judge the progress of schools, students, and major education initiatives.

Because the tests themselves held steady between 2016 and 2017, the test scores will provide a brief glimpse into whether students are making progress. That could also mean smaller changes than last year, when English scores shot up nearly eight percentage points.

But stable comparisons will only make a temporary appearance in New York education. Next year, the state has announced it will shorten testing by two days, which will no doubt call yearly comparisons into question again.

Here are a few storylines we’ll be watching as the state prepares to release test results:

Is the city’s approach to education policy working? What about signature programs like “Renewal”?

When test results jumped almost eight points in English and roughly one point in math last year, Mayor Bill de Blasio was quick to say they showed “pure hard evidence” his policies were working.

The state’s top education policymakers, however, cautioned that due to changes in the test, an “apples-to-apples” comparison to the year before was impossible. The changes included offering students unlimited time and shortening the exams slightly. This year, state tests were kept consistent in order to make those comparisons possible.

That raises an important question: Without changes to tests, will the results still be good news for Mayor Bill de Blasio and Chancellor Carmen Fariña? It is particularly important for high-profile efforts like the city’s “Renewal” turnaround program, which is entering the year in which the mayor said it should show results.

The only other year under de Blasio’s tenure when the state had fairly consistent testing compared to the prior year was 2015. In that year, test scores inched up one point in math and two points in English.

It may be a good thing if there are only small increases again, said Jennifer Jennings, an associate professor at NYU who has studied testing.

“We hope that they’re gradually inching upwards,” Jennings said. “Very large swings are often evidence that something is off.”

What will happen to opt-out?

For the last two years, about one in five students across New York state have boycotted state tests in protest. That number is significantly lower in New York City — though it has been growing. In 2016, 2.4 percent of city students sat out of the English exams and 2.8 opted out of math in New York City.

The opt-out rate acts as a litmus test of the public’s reaction to state education policy. The movement started in response to a series of state reforms, including adoption of the Common Core and test-based teacher evaluations.

Despite changes the state made last year to appease families upset about the tests, opt-out rates remained relatively consistent. (In fact, they ticked up a bit.) This year, the state has embarked on a process to reshape learning standards and submit a new plan to evaluate schools under the new federal education law.

Will that be enough to defuse some of the tension? Early results indicated opt-out rates may have decreased statewide, but the final tally will likely be released today with state test scores, as it has in past years.

What about equity, which is at the heart of the city’s agenda?

Each year, test results show a disheartening fact: Certain subgroups, such as black and Hispanic students, fare worse than their peers on tests. English learners and students with disabilities also historically score below average.

City and state officials have placed equity at the heart of their agenda. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “Equity and Excellence” initiatives and his approach to turning around struggling schools are predicated on the idea that schools — particularly those in low-income communities — need resources in order to be successful. State officials have put equity at the center of their plan to reshape education policy under the Every Student Succeeds Act.

De Blasio’s critics, however, have argued the best way to address equity issues is tackling segregation in New York City schools. (The mayor released a preliminary diversity plan, but has been fairly slow to endorse integration as a strategy for school improvement.)

So, are the extra resources helping to close the gap between students of color and their white and Asian peers? This year’s test scores will help sort out that question, though many of the mayor’s major initiatives could take years to come to fruition.

making the rounds

Tennessee’s new education chief ‘very confident’ that online testing will be smooth in April

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee's new education commissioner Penny Schwinn (second from left) met with Douglass High School students and Shelby County Schools leaders Friday.

As Tennessee’s new education commissioner wrapped up her second week on the job by visiting four schools in Shelby County, Penny Schwinn said she feels “very confident” the state has learned from its mistakes in online testing.

During the more than three-hour ride to Memphis on Friday, Schwinn said she continued to pore over documents showing evidence that the corrections the state department staff have put in place will work.

“I feel very confident that our team has looked into that,” she told reporters in a press conference after meeting with students. “They’re working with the vendor to ensure that testing is as smooth as possible this year.” Currently the state is working with Questar, who administered TNReady online last year.

She also said the state’s request for proposals from testing vendors, which is already months behind, will be released in about two weeks.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
From left: John Bush, principal of Douglass High School; Penny Schwinn, Tennessee Education Commissioner; and Joris Ray, interim superintendent for Shelby County Schools.

“No later than that,” she said. “We hope and expect to have a vendor in place before the end of the fiscal year,” in late June.

The day Schwinn was hired, she said getting state testing right would be her first priority. Three years of major technical failures have severely damaged the trust educators and parents have in the state’s test, TNReady. It is the main measure of how schools and teachers are doing, but state lawmakers exempted districts from most testing consequences in 2018.


From Schwinn’s first day on the job: Tennessee’s new education chief wants to ‘listen and learn’ with school visits


Prior to talking with reporters, Schwinn said she heard “hard-hitting questions” from several students at Douglass High School in Memphis about what the state can do to improve education. Schwinn has said she will visit Tennessee schools throughout her tenure to ‘listen and learn’ by talking to students and educators.

Reporters were not allowed to attend the student discussion with Schwinn and some Shelby County Schools leaders.

Douglass High entered Shelby County Schools’ turnaround program, known as the iZone, in 2016 and saw high academic growth in its first year. But test scores fell this past year as the state wrestled with online malfunctions.

Timmy Becton Jr., a senior at Douglass High, said he hopes for fewer tests and more projects to demonstrate what a student has learned. Those kind of assessments, he said, can help a student connect what they are learning to their daily life.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee’s new education commissioner met with students at Douglass High School and Shelby County Schools leaders.

“We figured it would be a different way to measure and see how much knowledge a student really has on a specific subject,” he told Chalkbeat after meeting with Schwinn during a student roundtable session. “It’s a good alternative to taking tests.”

He said he was “surprised and happy” to see Schwinn actively seek student perspectives.

“I really think that’s the most important part because students are the ones going to school every day,” Becton said. “So, if you want to find a good perspective on how to solve a problem, it’s really great to talk to the people who are actively involved in it and the people who are actually experiencing these problems directly.”

The state’s annual testing window runs from April 15 to May 3.

School discipline

Michigan schools have expelled fewer students, but that may not be cause for celebration

PHOTO: Getty Images

Michigan schools have expelled far fewer students since the state enacted laws aimed at cutting back on expulsions. But an advocate who’s pushed for an end to zero-tolerance policies pointed out persistent problems and told elected state education leaders this week that, “We shouldn’t start celebrating yet.”

This is why: Peri Stone-Palmquist, executive director of the Ypsilanti-based Student Advocacy Center, told State Board of Education members that in the 18 months since the new laws took effect in 2017, expulsions have dropped 12 percent. But she’s concerned that too many school leaders don’t understand the law or are ignoring its requirements. And she believes some schools are finding other ways of kicking kids out of school without expelling them.

Michigan did away with zero-tolerance policies that had earned it a reputation for having some of the toughest disciplinary rules in the nation. In their place, lawmakers instituted new rules, such as requiring schools to consider seven factors — including a student’s age, disciplinary record, disability and seriousness of the incident — in making expulsion decisions.

“We have had districts and charters tell advocates that they would not consider the seven factors at all,” Stone-Palmquist said. Others aren’t sharing with parents and students how those seven factors were used. And she said there’s a general “lack of understanding of lesser interventions and the persistent belief that lengthy removals remain necessary.”

That’s a problem, she and others say, because of the negative consequences of kicking students out of school. Studies have shown that students kicked out of school are often missing out on an education and are more likely to get into trouble. Advocates also worry that expulsion exacerbates what they describe as a “school-to-prison” pipeline.

She said advocates are noticing that more students are receiving long suspensions, an indication that some schools are suspending students rather than expelling them. Hiding students in suspension data won’t work much longer, though. Michigan now requires schools to collect such data, which soon will be public.

Stone-Palmquist also said that some schools aren’t even going through the expulsion process, but simply referring students with discipline issues to “understaffed virtual settings.”

“Once again, the students who need the most get the least, and no one has to report it as an expulsion.”

Stone-Palmquist gave an example of a ninth-grader involved in a verbal altercation who was expelled for a long time for persistent disobedience, “despite our team lining up extensive community resources for him and despite the district never trying positive interventions with him.”

In another case, a fifth-grader was expelled for 180 days for spitting at another student who had done the same to them first. Stone-Palmquist said the seven factors weren’t considered.

“We were told at the appeal hearing that the student’s behaviors were too dangerous to consider lesser interventions.”

She and Kristin Totten, an education lawyer for the ACLU of Michigan, provided board members with statistics that some members found alarming. Totten noted that an ACLU review of data collected by the federal government shows that for every 100 students in Michigan, 38 days are lost due to suspension. In Oakland County, 26 days are lost for every 100 students. In Macomb County, it’s 35 days and in Wayne County, it’s 55 days.

One child who’s experienced trauma for years was repeatedly suspended from multiple schools. The 11-year-old has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. This school year, she’s been suspended for 94 days.

“Never once were the seven factors mentioned to her mother,” Totten said.

Stone-Palmquist asked board members to consider recommendations, including developing a model student code of conduct that incorporates the new rules, partnering with the advocacy center to request an attorney general’s opinion on what districts are required to do, and expanding data collection.

Tom McMillin, a member of the state board, asked whether the state should consider financial penalties, such as withholding some state aid.

“I’m a fierce advocate for local control. But in areas where the incentives might not be there to do what’s right … I’m fine with the state stepping in,” McMillin said.

Board member Pamela Pugh said she appreciated the push for the board to “move with great speed.” She said the data and stories provided are “compelling, as well as convincing.”

Stone-Palmquist said that despite her concerns, there have been some successes.

“Districts that used to automatically expel 180 days for fights, for instance, have partnered with us to dramatically reduce those removals with great outcomes,” she said. “We know alternatives are possible and that they actually help get to the root of the problem, prevent future wrongdoing and repair the harm.”

The Detroit school district didn’t come up during the hearing. But on the same day Stone-Palmquist presented to the state board, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti gave a presentation to his local board of education about what’s happened in the months since the district embarked on an effort to improve school culture by revising the student code of conduct, hiring deans for each school, and providing training on alternative discipline methods.

The bottom line: Vitti said that schools are booting out dramatically fewer students and greatly increasing alternative methods of discipline. In-school suspensions are up, given the push against out-of-school suspensions.

But the changes have also raised concerns. Some school staff have said the new rules are tying their hands. Vitti said it will take time for the changes to take hold, and he outlined some areas that need to improve, including more training.