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New York state officials announce there will be no changes to state exams until 2019

PHOTO: Monica Disare
State Commissioner MaryEllen Elia

Those seeking changes to New York’s standardized tests will have to wait at least two more years, State Education Department officials announced Monday.

The decision, which will affect grades 3-8 English and math exams, was presented by state officials as a chance to allow for stable, annual comparisons between test scores while officials consider a more dramatic shake-up to tests in 2019. But the move is likely to draw ire from parents across the state, roughly 20 percent of whom opted their children out of last year’s the exams in protest, demanding major changes to assessments.

The state considered making larger testing adjustments — including shifting from three-day tests to two — but determined it would not be possible to do so while keeping results reliable, said State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia.

“Our expert analysis determined it would not be feasible to do that and still be able to have meaningful growth comparisons for students, schools or statewide,” Elia said. “We will reexamine shortening the testing days as part of designing the tests for the state’s new learning standards.”

The state made a number of changes to assessments this year in response to parents’ concerns about over-testing, which inspired a robust boycott movement. Last year for the first time, students had unlimited time to take the tests and sat for shortened assessments.

Average scores improved, but the adjustments caused a problem: They precluded an apples-to-apples comparison between years. That meant it was difficult to examine whether students gained knowledge in English and math. In New York City, some leaders ignored the state’s caveats about making comparisons between years and reported the scores as a major victory.

To avoid recreating these problems, officials decided they could not continue making changes over the next two years. Even Chancellor Betty Rosa, who said last year she would opt her own child out of state assessments, expressed her support for leaving the exams unchanged.

“Maintaining the current testing for now will allow us to measure student development over time,” Rosa said.

Leaders of the statewide opt-out movement made it clear last year that the commissioner’s efforts to revamp tests did not satisfy their concerns — and sent that message on Monday.

“As the NYS testing system continues to be in turmoil, keeping tests the same length is essentially a green light for parents to continue opting out and it will fuel the movement to grow,” said Lisa Rudley, a founding member of New York State Allies for Public Education, which helped lead the statewide opt-out movement.

The state teachers union said the decision shows a “disregard” for the concerns of parents and educators. “Despite a fierce outcry against the length of state standardized tests by parents and educators, the State Education Department is punting on the changes needed to move forward. So much for listening,” the statement read, urging the department to reconsider its decision.

Such resistance could become even more difficult in the coming years, since the new federal education law requires 95 percent of students to take state tests, with consequences to be determined by the states themselves. Regent Roger Tilles, who represents opt-out hotbed Long Island, brought up this challenge at the Board of Regents meeting.

“I can almost assure that without some real changes, the parents’ group won’t necessarily understand [the lack of changes],” Tilles said. “We should anticipate at least a couple more years of difficulty in getting to the 95 percent.”

Editor’s Note: After sending a press release on Monday stating that state exams in grades 3-8 ELA and math would not be changed in 2017 or 2018, Chancellor Betty Rosa said Tuesday the board is willing to discuss changes in 2018. Education Department spokesperson Emily DeSantis said, “Given the recent events of the past month and our discussions yesterday, we are making no decisions right now about the 2018 assessments.” 

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Five things to know about the latest brouhaha over Tennessee’s TNReady test

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede

Last week’s revelation that nearly 10,000 Tennessee high school tests were scored incorrectly has unleashed a new round of criticism of the standardized test known as TNReady.

Testing company Questar says it muffed some tests this spring after failing to update its scanning software. A year earlier, a series of mistakes got its predecessor, Measurement Inc., fired when Tennessee had to cancel most of TNReady in its first year after a failed transition to online testing.

While the two companies’ glitches are hardly comparable in scope, Questar’s flub has uncorked a tempest of frustration and anger over the standardized assessment and how it’s used to hold teachers accountable.

Here are five things to know about the latest TNReady flap:

1. A relatively small number of students, teachers, and schools are affected.

State officials report that the scoring problem was traced to only high school tests, not for its grade-schoolers. Of the 600,000 high school end-of-course tests, about 9,400 were scored incorrectly. Most of the fixes were so small that fewer than 1,700 tests — or less than one-tenth of 1 percent — saw any change in their overall performance level. A state spokeswoman says the corrected scores have been shared with the 33 impacted districts.

2. But the TNReady brand has taken another huge hit.

Tennessee has sought to rebuild public trust in TNReady under Questar and celebrated a relatively uneventful testing season last spring. But the parade of problems that surfaced during TNReady’s rollout, combined with this year’s drops in student performance under the new test, have made subsequent bumps feel more like sinkholes to educators who already are frustrated with the state’s emphasis on testing. Questar’s scanning problems were also tied to delays in delivering preliminary scores to school systems this spring — another bump that exasperated educators and parents at the end of the school year and led many districts to exclude the data from student report cards.

3. State lawmakers will revisit TNReady — and soon.

House Speaker Beth Harwell asked Monday for a hearing into the latest testing problems, and discussion could happen as early as next week when a legislative study committee is scheduled to meet in Nashville. Meanwhile, one Republican gubernatorial candidate says the state should eliminate student growth scores from teacher evaluations, and a teachers union in Memphis called on Tennessee to invalidate this year’s TNReady results.

4. Still, those talks are unlikely to derail TNReady.

Tennessee is heavily invested in its new assessment as part of its five-year strategic plan for raising student achievement. Changing course now would be a surprise. Last school year was the first time that all students in grades 3-11 took TNReady, a standardized test aligned to the Common Core standards, even though those expectations for what students should learn in math and English language arts have been in Tennessee classrooms since 2012. State officials view TNReady results as key to helping Tennessee reach its goal of ranking in the top half of states on the Nation’s Report Card by 2019.

5. Tennessee isn’t alone in traveling a bumpy testing road.

Questar was criticized this summer for its design of two tests in Missouri. Meanwhile, testing giant Pearson has logged errors and missteps in New York, Virginia, and Mississippi. And in Tennessee and Ohio this spring, the ACT testing company administered the wrong college entrance exam to almost 3,000 juniors from 31 schools. Officials with the Tennessee Department of Education emphasized this week that they expect 100 percent accuracy on scoring TNReady. “We hold our vendor and ourselves to the highest standard of delivery because that is what students, teachers, and families in Tennessee deserve,” said spokeswoman Sara Gast.

Q&A

This Wayne Township school made big gains on ISTEP, and its principal said teachers sticking around was key.

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students at Robey Elementary School in Wayne Township participate in an English lesson.

As the kindergartners at Robey Elementary School shuffled down the hallway in a single-file line, the wings on their festive construction paper bat headbands flapped softly.

When Principal Ben Markley walked by, the kindergartners jostled to greet him, one after another giving a tiny wave by bending their index fingers up and down. Bat wings flapped furiously.

“Are we working hard today?” Markley asked as he approached, returning what he dubbed the “kindergarten wave” by waggling his own index finger.

“Yes!” the kids chorused back excitedly.

Markley continued down the hallway, explaining that he created the wave to give some of the school’s youngest students a special way to connect with him — a better option than running up and gluing themselves to his legs, he said.

He is now in his fifth year at Robey, a school with more than 750 students located in the northwest corner of Wayne Township. In fact, Markley has spent his entire career as an educator in Wayne Township. And he’s not alone: Of the 20 Robey teachers who taught grades that took ISTEP last year, 19 stayed on from the year before.

Markley says that retaining teachers and staff has afforded students immense benefits — not the least of which that the school made some of the largest gains of any township school on last year’s ISTEP test.

Chalkbeat sat down with Markley recently to talk about the school’s progress. Below are excerpts from the conversation, edited for clarity and brevity.

Your passing rate for English and math went up about 8 percentage points from last year, and your letter grade went up from a B to an A. What was your reaction when you learned that?

Two years ago we were pretty disappointed with some of our scores. We saw some areas in math that we thought we should be addressing a little differently — the way our teachers were thinking about curriculum and really the depth and the rigor that we were presenting to our students.

There was this pretty big gap between what we were asking our kids to do and what was on the state assessment. We talked a lot about that last year. We spent a lot of our professional development time thinking about what are the deeper thinking skills that students need, especially in math. We sometimes called it how do we get kids to grapple with problems. How do we get them to show perseverance and dedication and be able to learn from mistakes — to make a mistake and accept that mistake and say, how do we grow from this?

We haven’t had the teacher turnover that some schools have had. And so (teachers within every grade) are becoming content and curricular experts. When you put smart people in the room together talking about how they teach something, they are able to share lots of great ideas.

To see that pan out in improved performance — that’s what you’re so excited about. That’s why you put all that effort and time and energy and debating and conversation in, because then our hard work paid off, and that’s rewarding for teachers.

What is your school community like?

We are about 52 to 53 percent free and reduced lunch this year. We’re about 50 percent white, about 35 to 40 percent African American and about 10 percent Hispanic.

It feels almost neighborhood- or community-like being back here. I think families know that they can come here and they can partner with staff members to try to find the best ways to help their children. We serve rural families and out-of-district families who choose to come to Robey, and we take pride in that fact.

What is your approach to leadership?

I think we have very talented, dedicated, smart people, and so I feel like my job is to get them the resources that they need. I trust the decisions that teachers make. So I want them to feel empowered to make those decisions and suggest those changes and improvements that help us move forward as a school.

I talked about staff continuity already. I think that is something I maybe even initially underestimated how important it was. It fosters a sense of collegiality. They know they’ve got each others’ backs.

It also just gives them time to wrap their minds around our curriculum. The first time you teach it, that’s a big undertaking. It’s overwhelming. And so to have consistency (with our teaching staff) from year to year … was critical to our success.