Within the last few days superintendents across New York State received a missive from Commissioner Elia announcing the federally required grades 3-8 English and math tests would have fewer questions and the testing would be untimed.
The announcement was a surprise, and, sharply criticized by the New York Post,
Fewer questions makes for a less-meaningful test — especially since the state inevitably “disqualifies” several questions every year after students have taken the exams.
Far worse, she’s ordered that the tests no longer be timed.
This is lunacy. Nowhere in the world do standardized exams come without time limits (though New York makes an exception for kids with certain disabilities).
You can make a case for giving all kids a bit more time — but killing limits makes no sense. It may help more children “pass,” but it won’t help any get a better education.
Tests are about gauging a student’s knowledge and skills — including the skill of time-management. Without time limits, they’re a far less accurate measure.
While the Post is virulently anti-teacher union and curmudgeonly; they’re not all wrong.
The release of the report of the Cuomo Task Force in December contained twenty recommendations, one of which related to the timing of tests. including
Undertake a formal review to determine whether to transition to untimed tests for existing and new State standardized tests aligned to the standards.
At the December meeting the Board of Regents voted (with Regent Tisch casting the only dissenting vote) to accept the report.
Instead of a “formal review,” as recommended by the Task Force the Commissioner announced that the spring tests would be untimed. Students with disabilities, if their Individual Education Plan (IEP) directs, already have extended time. English language learners with more than one year in the country must take the same tests as all other students and time limits may adversely impact their performance. The decision to lift the timed nature of the test for all students was surprising.
The reduction in the number of questions is an issue for the test makers, the psychometricians who design the tests. How many questions are required to produce a valid, reliable and stable exam? Commissioner Elia, in defending the importance of the tests, argues that the tests indicate progress or lack thereof for students, individually, by grade, school and school district. With the information, the test results, teachers can adjust instruction to emphasize areas of poorer performance as well as highlight instructional practices that resulted in better performance. Hopefully we embed assessment into our daily practice, usually referenced as formative assessment, aka, “…diagnostic testing, a range of formal and informal assessment procedures conducted by teachers during the learning process in order to modify teaching and learning activities to improve student attainment.” The state tests are summative assessments, tests that “measure” output, the teaching/learning process over a school year. For the school community the only use of the tests is to “grade” individual principals, teachers and schools; using the summative assessment to fire (or reward) principals and teachers and to close schools.
The Cuomo Task Force, correctly, called for halting the practice until a new system can be crafted for the 2019-2020 school year.
This has been an odd year characterized by the Governor’s metamorphosis: from the angry, retributive April leader who punished teachers, principals and schools to the collaborative December leader who calls for a thoughtful approach to rethinking and restarting the revision process with the stakeholders: the education community. The twenty Task Force recommendations (see below) incorporate the wide range of criticisms that have swept across the state since the ill-considered John King attempt to impose change. Change is a process, change can be uncomfortable, change requires a space to discuss and debate, a space to acclimate ourselves to changes in direction.
The Task Force has provided us with that space – a number of years to find our path.
The Commissioner is anxious to start the process, and let’s be honest, anxious to reduce the number of opt out families.
If the reason to move precipitously to untimed tests is an attempt to assuage the opt out parents the commissioner is mistaken.
While it may be an unintended consequence (or, maybe not!!) summative testing as measured by year-end test scores drives classroom practice – if you don’t “prepare” kids for the tests teachers and principals risk a low score and the dire consequences – test prep rules. We continue to search for the happy median, rich, engaging classrooms in which students make progress both on measurable scales as well as the probably unmeasurable social and emotional scales.
One approach is to move from end of year summative assessment, the current system, to a performance task assessment conducted throughout the school year. In a thoughtful essay the new testing company, Quester, discusses the pros and cons (Read essay here)
A performance assessment is a test in which a student performs some number of tasks to show his or her knowledge, skills, and abilities in a particular area, such as conducting a science experiment. That is, a student must show how to solve a problem using what he or she knows about the assessment prompt. The best performance assessments are authentic, which is when the task is realistic and is considered something that would be done in the real world,
A performance task assessment system would require substantial changes in day-to-day classroom practices – I encourage the commissioner to explore, a pilot program in a few districts.
A far more radical change is a move to competency-based groupings, personalized learning, and incorporating technology into the core instructional process – highly controversial (Read a Quester essay here)
… meet a number of 21st century teaching needs such as individualized and personalized instruction, personalized learning, competency-based grouping and progression, seamless blending of instruction and assessment, and timely impact of assessment results to affect instruction.
Do we believe we can create summative assessments, year-end tests that will be both accepted by parents and teachers as well as fit the needs of the State Ed, school districts, schools and teachers?
Are performance task assessments better indicators of student progress and more useful to teachers and parents? Or, so complex and burdensome that the effort will not be fruitful?
Are we finally reaching a point when technology can be seamlessly blended with traditional classroom instruction? Or, are we once again casting aside the social and emotional needs of children?
Let’s begin the discussion before we all hold hands and jump into the pool.
Cuomo Task Force Recommendations
Recommendation 1: Adopt high quality New York education standards with input from local districts, educators, and parents through an open and transparent process.
Recommendation 2: Modify early grade standards so they are age-appropriate.
Recommendation 3: Ensure that standards accommodate flexibility that allows educators to meet the needs of unique student populations, including Students with Disabilities and English Language Learners.
Recommendation 4: Ensure standards do not lead to the narrowing of curriculum or diminish the love of reading and joy of learning.
Recommendation 5: Establish a transparent and open process by which New York standards are periodically reviewed by educators and content area experts.
Develop Better Curriculum Guidance and Resources
Recommendation 6: Ensure educators and local school districts have the flexibility to develop and tailor curriculum to the new standards.
Recommendation 7: Release updated and improved sample curriculum resources.
Recommendation 8: Launch a digital platform that enables teachers, including pre-service teachers, and teacher educators, to share resources with other teachers across the state.
Recommendation 9: Create ongoing professional development opportunities for teachers, teacher educators, and administrators on the revised State standards.
Significantly Reduce Testing Time and Preparation and Ensure Tests Fit Curriculum and Standards
Recommendation 10: Involve educators, parents, and other education stakeholders in the creation and periodic review of all State standards-aligned exams and other State assessments.
Recommendation 11: Gather student feedback on the quality of the new tests.
Recommendation 12: Provide ongoing transparency to parents, educators, and local districts on the quality and content of all tests, including, but not limited to publishing the test questions.
Recommendation 13: Reduce the number of days and shorten the duration for standards-aligned State standardized tests.
Recommendation 14: Provide teachers with the flexibility and support to use authentic formative assessments to measure student learning.
Recommendation 15: Undertake a formal review to determine whether to transition to untimed tests for existing and new State standardized tests aligned to the standards.
Recommendation 16: Provide flexibility for assessments of Students with Disabilities
. Recommendation 17: Protect and enforce testing accommodations for Students with Disabilities.
Recommendation 18: Explore alternative options to assess the most severely disabled students.
Recommendation 19: Prevent students from being mandated into Academic Intervention Services based on a single test.
Recommendation 20: Eliminate double testing for English Language Learners