testing testing

New York has debated ‘innovative’ tests. But what does that actually mean?

In New York, the annual state tests still mean the usual multiple-choice questions and short writing prompts — and that’s not likely to change soon.

State officials recently chose not to apply to join a federal “innovative testing” program, which would have triggered an overhaul of the math and English tests that students in grades 3 to 8 take each year. (They cited the cost and difficulty of rolling out the new tests on the tight timeline required by the program.)

Yet in a state where nearly one in five families choose to boycott the exams — which many say do a poor job measuring students’ learning — pressure remains on policymakers to come up with new and better tests. They appear to have some interest in moving in that direction: The state’s education policy-making body, the Board of Regents, has established a workgroup focused partly on testing, and the state education commissioner has expressed interest in alternative graduation exams and new types of science and social studies tests.

If New York does pursue “innovative” assessments, what might they look like?

To answer that, we found four real-world examples of alternative assessments — two used in New York City, and two from other states. While each has its drawbacks, they show that “testing” doesn’t have to mean shading in bubbles with a No. 2 pencil.

Example 1: Tasks used to evaluate teacher effectiveness (New York City)

Who takes them? Students in all grades, in subjects including math, English and the arts

What are they? Essays and short tasks

As part of New York City’s teacher evaluation system, schools can choose from a menu of assessments meant to measure how much teachers have helped their students learn. Among those “Measures of Student Learning” are tasks that require students to make an argument in a written essay by citing examples from texts they are provided.

Other kinds of “MOSL’s,” as they’re often called, go beyond essays. Teachers can administer “running records,” where they assess individual students’ English skills as they read a series of texts out loud. A visual-arts assessment asks students to draw a still-life picture.

What do they look like? A 12th-grade English test from several years ago asks students to answer the question, “Should individuals enlist in the military and fight for their country?” In order to make their case, students must read and cite a poem and a portion of President Woodrow Wilson’s address to Congress.

What are the drawbacks? They are similar to standardized tests

The city teachers union negotiated with the city to include these tests in teacher evaluations, yet many teachers and school leaders have complained that they take up too much class time. Others question whether the assessments fairly measure students’ ability in subjects like art.

“Art is subjective,” said Jake Jacobs, a middle-school art teacher at Bronx Park Middle School. “If somebody is drawing something, who’s to say whether that drawing is good or bad?”  

Example 2: Projects required for graduation (New York City)

Who takes them? Students at 38 New York City high schools in the “Performance Standards Consortium”

What are they? Months-long projects

The consortium was established in the 1990s to bring together New York City educators seeking an alternative to traditional standardized tests. Today, schools in that group have state permission to substitute long-term projects for several of the Regents exams that students must pass in order to graduate. At those schools, each student must complete a literary essay, solve a complex math problem, design a science experiment, and complete a research paper in order to earn a diploma.

In their junior or senior years, they present their projects to a panel of judges, who evaluate whether the work meets the consortium’s requirements.

Sample questions: According to consortium materials, one student wrote a paper titled, “What Role Do Black Characters Play in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and Flannery O’Connor’s Short Stories?” Another produced a science experiment called, “How Does a Garter Snake Detect Its Prey?” Another wrote a research paper titled, “Who Or What Is Responsible for the End of Slavery in the United States?”

What are the drawbacks? Heavy workload for educators and students

Schools in the consortium must spend a lot of time training teachers to oversee students’ projects and ensuring that the work is held to the same standards across the consortium. For that reason, even Ann Cook, executive director and co-founder of the New York Performance Standards Consortium, says it would be difficulty to spread this model across the entire state.

“Could every kid in the state be doing this? I’d probably say no,” Cook said. “And the reason is that you have to have a faculty that is interested and wants to do it. They should want to opt into this because it takes a lot of work in the school.”

Example 3: Real-world problems (New Hampshire)

Who takes them? Students in grades K-12 in math, English, and science

What are they? Tasks based on real-world scenarios

New Hampshire students take traditional standardized exams once in elementary, middle, and high school. In the other years, they take alternative assessments after they finish studying units tied to the state standards. Called “Performance Assessment of Competency Education,” or PACE tests, they challenge students to apply skills they learn in class to real-world problems.

Sample question: After learning how to calculate volume, high school geometry students are given a task where they assume the role of a town planner. Their job is to design a water tower that can hold enough water to support the town’s growing population, but which requires a limited amount of material to build. The project, which students typically finish in a couple hours, must include a cover page, models or scale drawings, the calculations students made, and a written analysis of their design.

What are the drawbacks? Costly and difficult to scale

Though New Hampshire started experimenting with the “PACE” tests more than three years ago, they still have only been rolled out in a fraction of the state’s school districts. The state also had to rely partly on philanthropic funds to develop the expensive assessments, according to Scott Marion, executive director of the Center for Assessment, who helped New Hampshire with its testing experiment.

Because of their high cost and difficulty to roll out statewide, Marion advised New York against adopting similar tests.

Example 4: Student-work portfolios (Vermont)

Who takes them? Previously, students in grades 4 and 8 in math and English

What are they? Portfolios of student work

In the early 1990s, Vermont schools began collecting pieces of student work throughout the year. Students stuffed portfolios with letters they’d written, poems, and math problems, which were then sent to the state for review.

Sample questions:  In a fourth-grade writing portfolio, students had to include their best piece of writing, a letter explaining what they’d written, a written response to a book or current issue, and a poem, short story, or personal narrative, according to a 1992 report co-authored by Daniel Koretz, an education professor at Harvard.

What are the drawbacks? Hard to standardize

Vermont eventually scrapped the portfolio system. Officials decided that it was too hard to standardize them: The difficulty of the teacher-created math problems that students completed varied from school to school, for instance, and some students got help from their parents on certain projects while others didn’t, according to Koretz.

You can’t realistically compare a piece a student did alone,” he said, “with one that another student did with help from a parent — say, one with a degree in physics.”

Literacy

It’s not impossible to teach teenagers to read. But it takes serious investment

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel

Experts say it’s not impossible to teach older students how to read.

But late-stage intervention for students like Javion Grayer — a 16-year-old  who reads at a second-grade level after more than a decade in Chicago schools — takes daily practice and consistent one-to-one lessons with instructors trained to teach reading.

Such remediation, which expert say can’t happen in a general education setting or a large classroom, is something that most budget-strapped urban school districts, such as Chicago Public Schools, are ill-equipped to provide.

The district, though, insists it is taking steps to bolster literacy instruction. Just an hour after Chalkbeat published its profile of Javion — looking at how the teen fell so far behind and revealing the anguishing effects of his low literacy skills — Chicago Public Schools said it is developing a central reading curriculum that should be completed in the next two to three years. The goal: to ensure high-quality reading instruction and online library resources district-wide to support equitable access to content for readers at all grade levels, according to a district spokesperson.  

“It’s not acceptable for any student to leave our schools without being prepared for success, and the district will continue to build upon its academic improvements to ensure students have quality instruction and strong systems of support across the district,” said district spokesman Michael Passman in a statement. However, the statement skirted questions about specific interventions for older readers playing catch up.

What it will take to get students like Javion to grade level, is multipronged, literacy experts say.

“That’s obviously somebody who has fallen through the cracks,” said Rebecca Treiman, a professor of child developmental psychology at Washington University at St. Louis. “But there are ways to address these problems and it’s not like there’s a single age when somebody can read.”

Treiman, whose work focuses on spelling and literacy, echoed recommendations from other reading specialists, including nationally renowned literacy expert Louisa Moats, former Chicago schools reading director Tim Shanahan, and Alfred Tatum, dean of the college of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago — all of whom spoke to Chalkbeat.

After third grade, classroom instruction tends to move away from teaching students how to read and toward asking them to read in order to learn new material about other subjects.

For Javion and other older students with large literacy gaps, the experts recommended a return to basic phonics, in an effort to improve decoding ability, a daily diet of reading, and comprehension exercises. Shanahan and Treiman suggested a review of prefixes, suffixes, and common word roots. Moats prescribed helping students recognize commonly used “sight words,” and a focus on boosting vocabulary through reading and listening to texts. Treiman also recommended a curricular emphasis on students’ ability to perform everyday tasks, like filling out job applications and reading recipes. And Tatum was adamant about the need for culturally responsive curriculum, which takes into account students’ cultural identity, ethnic background and experiences.

However, even if such a rigorous remedial reading program were put in place in Chicago Public Schools, it’s still unclear how it would address the needs of older students. Such a program would also be optional for Chicago schools, since the district’s more than 640 schools, especially charter and contract schools, have a lot of autonomy to select curriculum. Since at least the early 2000s, Chicago has increasingly moved toward giving principals more freedom to choose what and how students are taught.

By contrast, the Houston Independent School District provides schools with guidance about the pace, scope, and sequence of English Language Arts instruction from pre-K-12, including “strategic reading and writing” curriculum for 9th and 10th graders who need remediation.

Having a centralized curriculum — while not a magic bullet —  is a way to ensure that students all start with certain building blocks of reading instruction, especially in the crucial early elementary years. And the earlier reading challenges are discovered, the better, experts say.

Reading was always painful for Javion Grayer, 16, but he wasn’t screened for special needs until seventh grade. Experts said he should have been evaluated early in elementary school.

Shanahan, formerly of Chicago Public Schools, recommended that the district push for about 50 minutes of phonics instruction a day in grades K-5.

“That’s how you figure out words in those early grades,” said Shanahan, a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he was founding director of the UIC Center for Literacy. “But I’d be very surprised if that’s true at more than half the [district] schools.”

Shanahan also served on the National Reading Panel, which Congress convened to evaluate research about teaching reading. The panel’s findings favored a focus on decoding words by breaking them into parts and sounding them out. That’s as opposed to the “whole language” approach many schools across the nation have pushed, where students learn to use pictures or context clues to fill in ideas and recognize words.

In 2017 the percent of students in Chicago performing at or above reading proficiency was 27 percent on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. That represents significant progress — in 2002, that number was 11 percent — but remains a cause for concern, given the lack of intensive reading instruction after third grade.

Students who fall behind after the third grade are more likely to be poor readers throughout life, and more likely to drop out of school, research shows. Students for whom English is a second language, especially recent arrivals to the United States or children whose parents lack English proficiency, are more prone to reading struggles. Meanwhile, serious gaps in reading ability often correlate with race and family income. Black and Latino students and those from low-income families tend to post lower test scores than their white and more affluent counterparts — largely the result of generations of racial and educational inequities.  

Moats said that such discrepancies often stem from “teacher training and the lack of it, the placement of less skilled, less experienced teachers in schools that are high minority populations or schools in less desirable neighborhoods.”

Reading failure, she said, “is way more common than anyone acknowledges. It affects way too many kids, and it’s unnecessary because it’s preventable; we know how to teach reading from decades of scientific work on how to teach kids to read.”

School discipline

Even as suspensions fall, Memphis students are being kicked out of school longer, data shows

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Memphis alternative school students work with local activist Keedran Franklin, in yellow, to brainstorm policy proposals to prevent other youth from being incarcerated. At the top of the list was mentoring and jobs. Just under that was a call to eliminate suspensions and expulsions and replace with fostering better relationships between teachers and students.

Hidden behind what Memphis education officials have said is good news when it comes to student discipline is a disturbing trend: As short-term suspensions have decreased, expulsions have increased.

Graphic by Samuel Park

Last year, Shelby County Schools handed down nearly 2,500 expulsions, according to district data. That’s about 300 more than in the 2015-16 school year — when the district already had one of the highest expulsion rates in the nation, according to federal data.

In one extreme example, a single high school issued one expulsion for every six students.

On average, expelled students were barred from school for 106 days, or more than half of the school year.

And while Tennessee law and district policies mandate expulsions for some offenses, 83 percent of the expulsions came at school leaders’ discretion. A third were for violations of relatively minor rules.

The expulsion data reveals mixed results for the district’s push to reduce discipline methods that keep students out of school. Shelby County Schools handed out 4,700 fewer suspensions last year than in the 2015-16 school year. Yet the rise in expulsions means that the total number of school days that students missed for discipline reasons actually increased.

Students spent about 14,200 more days in class because of the reduction in suspensions, based on the average three-day punishment. But the increase in expulsions resulted in close to 33,700 more missed school days.

The district’s black boys bore the brunt of the trend. They make up 38 percent of the district’s more than 100,000 students, but accounted for 67 percent of expulsions last year.

The data is raising questions among supporters of Shelby County’s discipline push, which launched as the federal education department pressed districts to limit suspensions and expulsions and reduce racial disparities among students who are punished.

“What we don’t want is for practices that we’re trying to replace to be replaced with practices that don’t support students,” said Cardell Orrin, executive director of Stand for Children, an advocacy group that has supported the district’s discipline efforts. “If we hide at all what are the real struggles, then we don’t identify the resources that are needed.”

(Tennessee defines suspensions as exclusions from school lasting less than 10 days; suspensions longer than 10 days are called expulsions. The district provided the length of expulsions only for students without disabilities, about 92 percent of expelled students.)

Graphic by Gabrielle LaMarr LeMee

District officials emphasized the reduction in suspensions and blamed the high expulsion numbers on charter schools and the state’s “zero-tolerance” law that requires expulsions for certain offenses. “Charters most often do not use in-school suspensions and progressive discipline, so their expulsions increase our numbers,” said a spokesperson, Natalia Powers.

But the district’s own data showed that charter schools, which have also worked to reduce suspensions, collectively reported 64 expulsions last year, 3 percent of the district’s total. And data the district provided showed that at most, only a quarter of expulsions were mandated by law.

District officials have also said they are confident that the district’s nine alternative schools for expelled students are serving those students well. One of those schools, G.W. Carver College and Career Academy, recently received state recognition for its work with expelled students and students who are transitioning out of incarceration. Students there meet with behavior specialists, mental health clinicians, and social workers, while families get support as well. District officials said as many as 40 percent of students choose to stay at Carver after their expulsion is over.

“They’re children and they sometimes make poor choices,” said Valerie Matthews, the district’s alternative schools director, at a recent conference for young men who attend alternative schools. “We keep them on track academically, we teach them how to modify their behavior, we work with them, we’re patient with them, we love on them, and it works.”

But students who are expelled are not required to enroll in alternative schools — something that the district’s school board has asked state legislators to change.

Matthews acknowledged that not all students who are expelled wind up in alternative schools. She said students who are excluded from school for less than a month frequently do not make the switch, and other students don’t attend because they cannot get to the alternative schools. The district provides bus passes, but the city’s struggling bus system can make using them challenging.

That reality means there are students who aren’t being educated because of their misbehavior — and, students say, could make them more likely to run into trouble in the future.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
John Chatman is a senior at G.W. Carver College and Career Academy, an alternative school in Memphis that recently received recognition from the state for its services for expelled students and those returning to school after incarceration.

“When they stay out of school, it’s not really a lesson learned, because the only thing they do is go home and chill, or go out and do the same stuff they been doing,” said John Chatman, a Carver Academy senior who was expelled from both East High School and Northeast Prep, another alternative school. “It takes away from education. It also puts them back into an environment that they were trying to escape from.”

Indeed, removing or excluding students from class does not address misbehavior, said Zoe Savitsky, an attorney who oversees education litigation and policy reform for the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“Would you ever say to a 6-year-old, ‘Get out of my classroom until you learn to read?’” she said. “You actually have to teach behavior skills you want them to have. And exclusionary discipline just ignores that reality.”

Principals in Memphis schools have a great deal of discretion in handing out discipline. Just 17 percent of expulsions in Shelby County Schools last year were required under Tennessee’s “zero tolerance” rules, which mandate expulsions for serious assaults on school employees; drug use or possession, and having a firearm at school.

Half of the expulsions were for what the district calls “other threats” and offenses that include fighting and assaults that do not result in serious injury.

And a full third of the expulsions were for what the district calls “rules violations” that could include skipping class or being out of uniform.

The district did not offer more detail about which rules being broken resulted in last year’s expulsions. But many of the behaviors that fall into that category are exactly the kinds of offenses that the district has targeted in its push to reduce suspensions.

2018 Youth Action Networking event

  • What: Students in BRIDGES’ advocacy program for formerly incarcerated youth will present their ideas on how to reduce both suspensions and expulsions to several district and county leaders. The event is sponsored by Bridge Builders USA, the University of Memphis Law Diversity & Inclusion Office, and Project MI.
  • When: 2 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 15
  • Where: BRIDGES, 477 N. 5th Street, Memphis, TN 38105

As part of that push, the district has hired more staff to dig into why students misbehave, crafted individual plans to help students improve, and rolled out alternative consequences before barring students from school. Now, 20 “behavior specialists” each work with about 10 schools to reduce suspensions, meaning that schools that don’t hire their own get only a little bit of support in working with students who misbehave.

“It kind of escalates, and [teachers] have to end up making an office referral for something that probably could have been redirected if they had the right tools,” Hargrave said. “If every school had someone who was an expert in trauma-informed practices or dealing with difficult behaviors along with the general staff, that would be ideal.”

Students suspended or expelled from school are more likely to have lower test scores, drop out of school, or become involved in crime than other students, links that led to the national push to reduce exclusionary discipline.

Advocates say that shift is especially necessary in Memphis, which has the highest rate in the nation of young adults who are not in school or working. Earlier this year, Orrin’s organization invited national expert Cami Anderson to train Memphis school leaders to prevent expulsions and suspensions and use alternative ways to discipline students.

Anderson previously was the superintendent of New Jersey’s largest school district and led New York City’s system of alternative schools for students with behavior issues. She said she’s not surprised expulsions went up while Shelby County Schools focused on reducing suspensions.

“If you only look at one, without intending, you can incentivize schools to take actions that have worse outcomes for kids,” Anderson said. “That’s true across the country.”