Testing Time

New York state tests start this week. Here’s what you need to know.

PHOTO: Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education

New York state’s grade 3 to 8 math and English tests start this week and they look a little different than previous years.

In response to concerns about the length of the tests, the state cut English and math tests to two days each this year, dropping one testing day from each subject.

And fewer students will use a number two pencil. This year, more than 600 New York schools will be testing students on computers, a significant increase from the 184 schools that participated last year.

State officials say the switch to computer-based testing is important to get speedier results back to educators, but the transition to testing on computers has not been smooth in New York or nationally. Last year, a small amount of student data was compromised for those who took the tests on computers, and there are always concerns about whether schools have the technology to administer the tests.

However students take the exams, they remain controversial. About one in five families have boycotted the assessments for the past three years, many believing the state has overemphasized testing. On the flip side, the largest charter school network in New York celebrated tests by holding a rally in a professional sports arena.

Here’s what you need to know as students start taking the tests this week.

How much do state tests matter — and what are they used for?

  • They matter less than they once did, but Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has cited test scores as one of many factors the city uses to determine whether a school should close.
  • State policymakers have decided that grades 3-8 math and English exam scores will no longer count in teacher evaluations.
  • However, the moratorium on the use of state test scores in teacher evaluations will sunset in 2019, and state officials are starting work to revamp teacher evaluations. It’s unclear whether test scores will be part of the new system.
  • Meanwhile, the city has reduced the tests’ influence on school ratings and decisions about whether students move on to the next grade.
  • The state has submitted a new plan for how test scores will be used to evaluate schools under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. Test scores are still an important part of the evaluation, but the state has added new measures, including chronic absenteeism and suspension rates.

Why are state tests so controversial?

  • When the state adopted new Common Core-aligned standards, the tests became more difficult to pass, just as the stakes for teachers and schools grew.
  • The state began tying teacher evaluations to test scores.
  • Critics argue teachers have been forced to narrow their curriculum to focus on test preparation.
  • Many teachers are frustrated by the continued emphasis on testing. Others see the tests as helpful in gauging student progress.

What has the state changed in recent years?

  • The tests in 2016 were made slightly shorter.
  • Students were also allotted unlimited time to complete them in 2016 — a change meant to reduce student stress.
  • State test scores in English leapt after the changes made two years ago. Elia said that meant the scores could not be compared “apples-to-apples” to the year before, but city officials still celebrated the scores with little mention of the changes.
  • That led some to ask, how should we use the scores? And what does it mean for evaluating struggling schools?
  • Since 2015, a greater number of teachers have been involved in reviewing test questions, state officials said.
  • In 2017, state officials announced they did not plan to make significant changes to the tests. (First, they announced they would keep the tests stable for two years, but then backed off that decision the next day.)
  • This year, state officials decided to cut the math and English tests by one day each.
  • However, officials also announced that they would not apply for a federal testing pilot that would have allowed them to more dramatically revamp the tests.

What’s up with the opt-out movement?

  • Last year, opt-out percentages were 19 percent statewide, down two percentage points from the previous year.
  • The number of families sitting out of exams in New York City was much smaller at 3 percent for English exams and 3.5 percent for math.
  • Statewide, opt-out students in 2015 were more likely to be white and less likely to be poor, and liberal areas in Brooklyn and Manhattan saw the city’s highest opt-out numbers.
  • Leaders of the the opt-out movement have said they want to broaden their approach to state politics. Nationally, a recent study found that many members of the movement aren’t parents at all, but teachers and education advocates.
  • Despite the changes enacted so far, opt-out advocates aren’t satisfied. They still want substantially shorter tests with no consequences for schools.
  • A federal mandate says 95 percent of students must take state tests, but the way students opting out of exams are counted under the state’s new accountability plan is complicated. Though schools with high opt-out rates must technically count boycotting students as having failed the assessment, the state has created a workaround that should buffer these schools. State officials told Chalkbeat that they do not expect high opt-out schools to face serious consequences as long as they perform well on other metrics.

more money more learning

Does money matter for schools? Why one researcher says the question is ‘essentially settled’

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Educators wearing red and holding signs rally for more education funding at the Colorado Capitol on April 26, 2018.

“Throwing money at the problem” has long gotten a bad rap in education.

“The notion that spending more money is going to bring about different results is ill-placed and ill-advised,” U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said last year.

But a string of recent studies have undermined that perspective. Now, a new review of research drives another nail into the argument’s coffin.

The review looks closely at 13 studies focused on schools nationwide or in multiple states. Twelve found that spending more money meant statistically significant benefits for students, including rising test scores and high school graduation rates.

“By and large, the question of whether money matters is essentially settled,” Northwestern economist Kirabo Jackson concludes. “Researchers should now focus on understanding what kinds of spending increases matter the most.”

In the paper, which was released Monday through the National Bureau of Economic Research and has not been peer-reviewed, Jackson looks at attempts to pin down the effects of school spending. This is critical, because policymakers like DeVos often focus on correlations between spending and test scores.

The results of the 13 studies are remarkably consistent, even though they span different time periods.

For instance, students saw big gains in school districts where spending jumped between 1972 and 1990, one study found. A 10 percent increase in spending across a student’s 12 years in public school led students to complete an additional one-third of a year of school and boosted their adult wages by 7 percent. The gains were largest for low-income kids.

Studies of more recent changes tell a similarly encouraging story. States that increased school funding between 1990 and 2011 saw substantial gains on federal exams soon after, another analysis found.

A separate paper found that 12 percent increases in school spending boosted graduation rates by several percentage points

And another study found that cutting funding in the wake of the Great Recession hurt student test scores and graduation rates.

Jackson identifies just one national paper without clear positive effects.

“Money used wisely clearly matters,” said Lori Taylor, a Texas A&M school finance researcher  who praised Jackson’s study. “One of the takeaways from this newer literature might be that schools are more wise than we thought.”

Studies looking at single states have also found largely encouraging results. One recent study in New York took advantage of a quirk in the state’s funding formula that allowed certain districts with falling enrollment to get extra funding. Those extra dollars led to higher scores on state exams, it found.

Another New York study found that a 2 to 3 percent increase in funding led to a 0.5 to 0.8 percentage point decline in the high school dropout rate.

Head over to Ohio, and the results look similar: passing a funding ballot measure caused a boost in test scores. Three separate papers in Michigan, as well as a study in Massachusetts, found positive results, too. And Jackson’s overview may actually understate the evidence, as it does not include recent research in California and Texas, which also found gains from additional funding.

The only state study that showed unrestricted funding increases did not result in any improvements was a 2003 paper looking at Kentucky.

The pattern is consistent with other recent research overviews, but it’s a sharp departure from an older one by Eric Hanushek, a Stanford economist who has frequently testified on behalf of states defending against lawsuits aimed at increasing school funding. His 1997 review looked at studies conducted before 1995, and found that only 27 percent of the results showed statistically gains from additional school spending.

Jackson argues that Hanushek’s review — which was vigorously challenged even at the time — is dated and relies on studies with crude methodologies.

Hanushek concedes that, but says his view on the matter is largely unchanged. The gains shown in the studies in Jackson’s paper differ in size, he said. And he noted a similar correlation to ones that DeVos cites: as spending has increased over the past several decades, scores on 12th grade federal tests have remained largely stagnant.

“The variation in the results that you get indicate quite clearly if I want to fix [a school district] and I just drop money on them, they may or may not get better,” Hanushek said. “It’s how the money is spent more than how much.”

Still, even Hanushek acknowledges there is a case for spending more money in schools.

“I think we’re underinvesting in education in the U.S. and I think it’s pretty serious,” he said. “But I don’t want to just do what we’ve done in the past and hope for something different.”

Jackson’s results are a bit murkier when examining state spending that is earmarked for specific uses. School construction spending, for example, led to gains in some cases but no clear effects in others. A trio of New York City studies found that federal Title I funds targeted at disadvantaged students did not have clear positive effects.

Jackson’s paper also does not review research on spending increases to pay for smaller class sizes, teacher salary increases, tutoring programs, or school turnaround efforts. A number of turnaround initiatives with big price tags have yielded disappointing results.

On balance, Taylor of Texas A&M says that the research points in a clear direction — though it still may not persuade skeptics.

“There were some circles that never bought the premise that money doesn’t matter,” she said. “There are other circles that will never accept the premise that money does matter.”

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.”