students with disabilities

New York City says testing waiver sought by state could lower standards for students with disabilities

PHOTO: Monica Disare
New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña and State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia at Thomas A. Edison Career and Technical Education High School.

New York State wants to allow some students with disabilities to take below-grade-level exams — a plan that special-education advocates opposed and New York City officials questioned, arguing that would lower the standards for those students.

The state asked the federal education department in September for permission to give students with significant cognitive disabilities tests matched to their instructional level, rather than their age. State education department officials say this will provide schools with more useful information about what students have actually learned, while other supporters say it will spare those students from taking tests they have no chance of passing.

But New York City’s education department — which oversees half the state’s students — has raised concerns about the state’s request, while a coalition of 15 national special-education advocacy groups has urged U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to deny it. They argue that testing students below grade level would violate federal law, while city officials say that doing so would lower expectations of students with serious disabilities.

Maggie Moroff, a special-education policy expert at Advocates for Children, a New York City-based group that opposes the waiver, said she recognizes how frustrating it can be for students with disabilities to sit for exams they find extremely difficult and are unlikely to pass.

Nonetheless, “the waiver would give schools the opportunity to lower standards for students with disabilities,” she said, “instead of rising to the occasion.”

New York state submitted its testing waiver as part of a plan required under the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act. The request said that students may only be given a test written for younger students if they scored at the lowest level on the state exam or took an alternative test for students with severe disabilities in a previous year, are not qualified to take that alternative test in the current year, and have significant cognitive disabilities that affect their memory, language comprehension, or problem solving.

State officials said they expect only a small number of students would meet those criteria. Students would not be permitted to test more than two grade levels below their age, and students in grades 6-8 would have to take a test each year that is one grade above the one they took the previous year.

In their letter to DeVos, which was first reported by Education Week, the national Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities laid out several objections to New York’s waiver request. In addition to saying it violated the legal requirement that most students be tested at grade level, they said it would discriminate against students with disabilities and hide the achievement level of those students.

Meanwhile, the New York City education department also penned a letter to the state citing concerns about the proposal.

On a practical level, they said the student eligibility requirements were to left “many questions that need to be answered.” Disability advocates share this concern, saying that vague rules could allow districts to give below-grade-level tests to many students who don’t require them — reversing a yearslong effort by advocates to have students with disabilities take the same tests as their general-education peers.

The city also argued that the waiver risked lowering expectations of students with disabilities.

“It has been our experience that once we make a decision that a student is not able to take grade-level assessments, the likelihood of them being able to meet standards over time is significantly decreased,” said the city letter, which was signed by Sharon Rencher, senior advisor to the schools chancellor.

The state’s proposal has garnered some support, including from statewide associations of local school boards and superintendents. In all, 14 of 20 public comments submitted to the state were in “general support” of the waiver, according to the state education department.

Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, said he understands the importance of holding students with disabilities to high standards, but ultimately felt that forcing some students to take grade-level tests can do more harm than good.

“We just felt it was unfair to many of the kids,” he said. “They don’t have a realistic prospect of success and it’s just frustrating or discouraging for them.”

There is no guarantee that the federal education department will grant the waiver. The department rejected a similar request by New York in 2015. However, some observers think the state may stand a better chance under DeVos, who has emphasized the importance of letting states and districts make their own policy decisions.

A New York education department spokeswoman said districts would not be able to use the waiver to boost their accountability ratings because any student who takes a test below their grade level would automatically fall into the lowest score category.

“This waiver is simply designed to give a small group of students an assessment on which they may be able to demonstrate that which they do know,” said the spokeswoman, Emily DeSantis, “instead of giving them an assessment on which their result is likely to depend entirely on how well they guessed on the multiple choice questions.”

A spokeswoman for the city education department said it does not oppose the waiver request, but believes it presents challenges and questions that the city raised in a letter to the state.

“We remain committed to ensuring that all students are given every opportunity to access grade-level curriculum and assessments in order to ultimately earn their high school diploma and access all of the post-secondary options that this affords,” said the spokeswoman, Toya Holness.

Update: After the story published, Holness sent the following additional statement. “We appreciate that SED is working to give districts and schools more flexibility in assessing the progress and instructional needs of this small subset of students with disabilities without unduly frustrating them, and acknowledge SED’s clarification that this waiver is designed to enable these students to demonstrate their knowledge in a more meaningful way. We look forward to continuing to work with SED on this matter,” Holness said.

testing accountability

Pressuring schools to raise test scores got diminishing returns, new study of No Child Left Behind finds

PHOTO: Ann Schimke

Does tightening the screws on schools and teachers lead to benefits for students?

For the past couple of decades, school reform efforts have assumed that the answer is yes. Setting ambitious goals, and putting pressure on schools to reach them, would push students ahead. And past research has shown that math scores rose as more states began threatening and sanctioning schools with low test scores in the 2000s.

But a new study shows that continuing to to “raise the bar” during the No Child Left Behind era only had a modest effect at best. That raises questions about whether the small gains were worth the political controversy, and what critics claim were the educational costs, of putting a greater focus on test scores.

“These results suggest that the ratcheting [up] of test-based accountability pressures alone is not enough to sustain improvements in student achievement,” conclude researchers Vivian Wong, Coady Wing, David Martin, and Anandita Krishnamachari.

Their paper, which has not been formally peer-reviewed, focuses on the several years after the federal No Child Left Behind law was signed in 2002. The law — which passed with bipartisan support but would eventually draw bipartisan ire — required states to test students annually and set goals for schools. Schools that didn’t meet them faced sanctions.

States each set their own targets using different tests. But the researchers attempted to ask the same questions of each state: How hard was it for each school to hit its goals, and how did that change between 2003 and 2011? Then, they looked at how students did on the National Assessment for Educational Progress. Did states see larger gains on the federal low-stakes test after making life tougher on schools?

In many states, it really did become harder and harder for schools to measure up. In 2008, Education Week noted that California’s school failure rate jumped from 34 to 48 percent between 2007 and 2008. In Vermont, the climb was even steeper: from 12 percent of schools failing to 37 percent.

This added pressure, the authors conclude, seemed to lead to national gains in eighth grade math and reading. But the effect was tiny: about half a point in both subjects. (For comparison’s sake, the difference in performance between white and black students in eighth grade math was 32 points on the latest test.)

“Though they find positive effects, like everyone in this literature, they are small [effects],” Tom Dee, a Stanford education professor.

That said, the gains were largest for certain disadvantaged groups: English language learners, Hispanic students, students with disabilities, and students who started at the lowest levels of performance.

There was no evidence of higher standards causing any improvements in fourth grade math or reading.

If this shows that raising the bar doesn’t do much, though, past research has shown that just having a bar can make a big difference.

In states that didn’t have accountability systems at all before No Child Left Behind, creating them led to big gains on national low-stakes math tests: 8 points in fourth grade and 5 points in eighth grade, according to a study from Dee.

Together, this research bolsters a theory known as the “accountability plateau” — that creating tougher rules boost performance, but ratcheting up the pressure leads to diminishing returns.

“It seems like when you implement an accountability system there’s an initial bump, but after that continued gains are hard to come by,” said Morgan Polikoff, a professor at the University of Southern California who has studied standards and accountability systems.

Dee was more skeptical of this idea. Schools’ goals were getting harder and harder to reach just as criticism of the law was cresting and politicians were considering changes.  

“Districts may have understood it was a nudge and a wink and it didn’t really have teeth,” he said of the law.

No Child Left Behind’s replacement, the Every Student Succeeds Act, takes a different tack. Instead of giving each state discretion in how many schools are identified as failing and requiring them to ramp up the consequences over time, the law requires each state to identify 5 percent of schools as low-performing.

The latest study suggests that might be a preferable approach if states are able to figure out better ways to help a small group of struggling schools improve. Turnaround efforts — including a prominent federal program backed by a lot of money — have often produced disappointing results.

“It remains unclear how states will implement ESSA,” write the researchers. “But the federal law will likely not succeed if performance requirements are not accompanied by additional support for educators.”

Lost in Translation

Detroit superintendent promises Spanish translators, other fixes for ‘broken’ system

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit schools superintendent Nikolai Vitti addresses Spanish-speaking parents during a forum at Munger Elementary-Middle School.

One by one, the parents who stood in the library of a Southwest Detroit elementary school turned to the district’s superintendent and told him heartbreaking stories of a school system they say has failed them.

Speaking primarily in Spanish through a translator, the parents described miscommunications in schools where nobody knows their language.

One woman teared up as she described her struggle to find out what happened after her son was injured in school. Another said her son’s learning disability went undiagnosed for years while her pleas for help went unanswered. Others told of run-ins with principals, and of school security guards who didn’t realize how alarming it is for immigrant parents to be asked for identification when they come into their children’s schools.

The speakers were members of parent and community groups who had requested a meeting with Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti to discuss a range of concerns for Spanish-speaking parents.

They walked away with a list of promises from Vitti who says there’s a lot the district can do to better meet the needs of these families.

“I want you to hold me accountable,” Vitti told the several dozen parents who were assembled for the community forum at Munger Elementary-Middle School on Monday afternoon. 

He then rattled off a list of measures he planned to take to address their concerns. Among them, Vitti said he would:

  • Establish a Spanish hotline that parents can call to get help from the district in their native language;
  • Ensure that every school with Spanish-speaking children has someone in the office who speaks Spanish;
  • Provide translation services to parents during meetings about the extra supports for children with disabilities;
  • Create a bilingual task force to address the needs of non-English speaking families;
  • Conduct an audit of school security guards to make sure the people stationed in Spanish-speaking neighborhoods are able to speak the language;
  • Develop a new parent identification process so that parents can access their children’s schools without being asked to present a government ID, making it easier for undocumented parents to participate in their children’s education; and,
  • Hire Spanish speakers for his communications staff to better spread district news through social media and phone calls.

Some of those items, like providing translators during meetings about special education, are required by law. Others, like establishing a hotline, seem like basic measures for a district like Detroit where more than 13 percent of students are Hispanic and 12 percent of students speak a language other than English at home.

But Vitti acknowledged that a lot of basic structures in the district are still being rebuilt after years of financial crises and oversight by state-appointed emergency managers.

“The commitment to do it wasn’t there,” he said.

Monday’s meeting came about, he said, because the district was regularly hearing from parents in Southwest Detroit about problems they were having.

“It was starting to become a theme and we felt we just needed to have one unified conversation and begin a momentum of more direct engagement with the community,” Vitti said.

Monday’s meeting was his first major sit-down with Spanish-speaking families since his arrival in Detroit last year. Vitti, who was there for two hours, promised to return for another meeting this fall to update the parents on the progress he’s made.

“Sometimes it’s hard for me to sit and listen to these stories because our school system has to do better for children,” Vitti told the parents as he finished listing the changes he said he would make. “I’m committed to doing better as a school system for all the parents here, but we have to do this together. Tell me what’s broken and tell me what’s wrong but also come with a solution and let’s all work together to make this a better district and a better community.”

Vitti also urged the parents to vote in the upcoming gubernatorial election adding that “it’s very clear who the candidate is who supports public education.”

Parents said they were grateful to have gotten an audience with Vitti and are hopeful that change will come.

“I’m still skeptical because the system is so broken,” said Maria Salinas who leads the Congress of Communities, one of the groups that organized the forum. “We’ve been given a lot of promises that didn’t come through” in the past … “but Vitti is giving us some hope.”