The Politicization of State Tests: Creating Tests in Which “All Students in New York State Are Above Average”

When the dust cleared the greatest ally to the anti-testing clique was (roll of drums!!!)  MaryEllen Elia, the New York State Commissioner of Education.

The deeply flawed state tests (“All children are above average”) reignited the argument – why do we have state test at all (aside from the federal requirements)?

Statewide ELA test scores jumped by around 7% – although the racial achievement gap remained the same.

A magic potion, incompetence or simply political legerdemain?

A little review: in September, 2015 Governor Cuomo reconvened a blue ribbon panel, actually a process to repair the Governor’s foolhardy attacks on teachers and parents. In 2014 it appeared that Cuomo had a clear path the Democratic nomination for his second term and deep pockets for the November general election. Seemingly out of nowhere Zephyr Teachout, a law professor at Fordham challenged Cuomo for the Working Families Party spot on the ballot and challenged Cuomo in the Democratic primary. While the teacher union made no endorsement some members and locals were on the Teachout side. After defeating Teachout and Rob Astorino, his Republican challenger Cuomo decided to punish teachers. He cozied up to the charter school folks, used the budgeting process to tack on legislation to extend teacher probation, and, was nastier than usual.  NYSUT, the statewide teacher union responded with a series of aggressive TV ads and the opt-out movement was created, 20% of kids opted-out of the 2015 state tests.

Cuomo’s popularity rating tumbled.

I suspect clearer heads prevailed.

The purpose of the Task Force was to guide education policy from afar and place the Board of Regents and the commissioner in the foreground. The recommendations were more than recommendations; they were a pathway for state education policy. (Cuomo: This is the endgame – you figure us out how to get us there)

The Task Force Report (Read here), which was released in December, contained twenty-one recommendations, the last recommendation was a moratorium on the use of state tests to evaluate principals and teachers for four years, applauded by the teacher union.  The recommendations called for a thorough review of the Common Core Standards and teachers would be included in every step of the process.

Recommendation 15: Undertake a formal review to determine whether to transition to untimed tests for existing and new Standardized tests aligned to the standards; not controversial, garnered little,  if any discussion; perhaps a pilot in a few schools and school districts across the state.

Surprisingly, very surprisingly, without any discussion with the Board of Regents, the Commissioner announced that the 2016 state tests would be untimed.

The January announcement, entitled “Changes for the 2016 Grades 3-8 ELA and Mathematics Tests” begins,

This memo outlines changes made as a result of feedback from the field:

* Greater involvement of educators in the test development process

* Decrease in the number of test questions, and

* A shift to untimed testing

The announcement came from Angela Infante, Deputy Commissioner, Office of Instructional Support and Peter Swerdewski, Assistant Commissioner, Office of State Assessment.

The state document states, “…students will be provided with as much time as they need.” No pilot, no transition, jumping off the diving board into the pool, and, the state made no attempt to identify students who took additional time.

The scores soared, the state commissioner, in the Daily News admits the scores are “not exactly a perfect comparison,”

After widespread opposition to the difficulty of the tests erupted in 2015, state education department officials shortened the exams for 2016 and eliminated time limits.

“Because of the changes in testing, it’s not exactly a perfect comparison,” Elia said. “And even with the increases this year, there remains much work to be done.”

The state spent many millions of dollars purchasing tests, teachers and students months of test prep, to collect data from what turns out to be a non-standardized test. A test that might not even meet federal requirements, although I’m sure the feds will simply ignore the faux jump in scores.

Was the test itself “harder” or “easier;” many months down the road a Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) will release a report, hundreds of pages of dense analysis that few will read and fewer will understand.

The basic questions: are the results of the test useful?  Can they be compared with the previous year? Can schools and school districts be compared? And, at the top of the list: are the schools in New York State making academic progress?

Howard Wainer, a Distinguished Research Scientist, the author of innumerable books and articles, an internationally recognized expert writes,

Because of the changes this year’s scores can’t be compared to last year’s and because of the untimed nature of the test (and there being no record of how long anyone took) you can’t compare scores of students who took it this year with one another. It is, in no uncertain terms, an unstandardized test.

This test is akin to measuring children’s heights but allowing some students, we don’t know who, to stand on a stool, we don’t know how high, and then declaring some taller than others.

Fred Smith, another testing expert, writing in City Limits, had doubts about the validity of the test before the test administration.

Either the state education psychometrician is lacking in competence, or knew by adopting untimed tests scores would likely jump – either is unacceptable.

If the state continues down the same path, retaining the untimed tests, even if it keeps track of students who take extra time, and the amount of extra time, we will be once again be comparing apples to oranges. Kids who take extra time or choose not to take extra time may not be the same kids as this year – we simply can’t know.

Will states across the nation also jump on the untimed tests bandwagon?

In the politicized world of education the charter school folk and their acolytes beamed at higher scores, of course, we have no way of knowing why charter school scores were generally higher than public schools, and, the pro-charter print media crowed. Mayor de Blasio and Chancellor Farina also took a victory lap, and the Mayor immediately claimed the scores were proof that mayoral control be made permanent.

Board of Regents Chancellor Rosa reminded us it’s not time for a victory lap, unfortunately everyone else is milking the results – de Blasio and Farina, the charters and principals and teachers are breathing a sigh of relief.

A perverse kind of victimless crime: except for the kids who were tortured preparing for a non-standardized test.

Although the law has changed, No Child Left Behind has been replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act; the requirement for annual testing in grades 3-8 remains. The Leadership Conference is an umbrella group representing the major civil rights organizations across the spectrum has strongly supported the accountability requirements, aka, testing and reporting scores by subgroup, and, the law is not changing.

Testing is here to stay.

The US Department of Education has announced they will be selecting six or so states or consortiums of states to play with alternate assessments.

The anti-testing crowd points to the new law and the testing kerfuffle in New York State, why not move to portfolios and performance tasks to current replace testing? This is not a new idea.

Vermont spent a decade working to create an assessment system based on portfolios, and after an external report pointed to fatal flaws, abandoned the effort.

…report by the RAND Corporation … found that the “rater reliability” in scoring the portfolios–the extent to which scorers agreed about the quality of a student’s work–was very low. The researchers urged the state to release the assessment results only at the state level.

Daniel M. Koretz, a senior social scientist at RAND and the report’s author, said the low levels of reliability indicate that the scores are essentially meaningless, since a different set of raters could come up with a completely different set of scores.

Can thousands of teachers be expected to rate portfolios the same?

The portfolio process was expensive, extremely time consuming  and there is no guarantee the portfolio work was not “assisted” by parents or others .

Yes, portfolios and performance tasks are effective classroom tools and in the perfect world might be a way of assessing student progress, in the real world, the world in which we live, it is not reasonable to expect inter-rater reliability.

The anti-testing movement will not disappear and the opt-out movement is alive.

What is absent is leadership – Arne Duncan drove us down a path for seven years that divided education: reformers versus deformers, marketeers versus public schools, unions versus the hedge funders: education is bitterly divided. Will the next president nominate an education leader who can bring together the disparate constituencies?

Education is adrift and the unstandardized testing regimen in New York State is a prime example.

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One response to “The Politicization of State Tests: Creating Tests in Which “All Students in New York State Are Above Average”

  1. Until the colleges and universities abandon their practice of highly valuing test score results, we do a disservice to our students by not having strong test taking routines in their schedules. Whether it is elementary school, middle school or high school, test taking skills must be taught, practiced and implemented on a regular basis by every teacher regardless of grade level or department. To this point, I am reminded, how many years ago, an iconic African American Principal in an elementary school in East Harlem , who during the coarse of an interview by a young reporter from one of NY’s daily newspapers was asked,(paraphrasing), what her policy on testing was?The Principal responded that as long as Harvard was using test results to identify its incoming freshman candidates, that she would continue testing as a centerpiece of her educational plan. She did chide the reporter by saying that she would appreciate the reporter getting back to her if and when Harvard ceased from this practice. To this date Harvard has not ceased from its valuing of test results as a primary means of gaining entry to its hallowed halls. Some years later, I had occasion to serve as an Acting Principal in an elementary school that shared the building with the District Office. Having obviously been influenced by my Harlem colleague, I re-designed the entire school program so as to include a daily 30 min segment designated of test taking skills preparation (TTSP) for grades 3 thru 6 . The Union barked that this would promote an excessive amount of paperwork for the teachers, and that there were insufficient materials available, let alone the huge amount of paper stock needed for duplicating practice materials. I assured the union that no teacher would have to spend time duplicating materials and that there was a sufficient amount of paper stock to meet our needs. I further assured the union that The PTA was on board and prepared to assist us in accomplishing our goal of improved student readiness in uniform test taking.Using my own resources, and creativity, I was able to borrow several pallets of paper stock from the District Office side of the storage bins in the common basement. My PTA volunteers, on a nightly basis feverishly duplicated in assembly line fashion those materials needed for each of grades 3 thru 6 for the next days use. That spring we saw our scores rise from an aggregate of school wide compilations of 38 percentile to 54. The point here is not the way by which I went about implementing the test taking skills part of my students everyday lives, but rather that the answer lies in the age old adage to wit: Practice, practice, practice, is the answer, if you want to do anything right , that you haven;t done right before, you must practice!

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