ESSA, Lake WoeBeGone and Confronting Authentic Assessments and the Pernicious Impact of Poverty

BUDGET UPDATE: It’s Sunday afternoon and to the best of my knowledge a New York State budget is still not in place. In “usual’ times as the clock ticks down the governor acts as a mediator and works with the Assembly and Senate leadership to cobble together a budget as the clock strikes twelve and nobody turns into a pumpkin. This year: lots of pumpkins. The Democrats in the Assembly despise the governor, he scuttled a raise in the waning days of the last session. The legislature has not had a raise since 1999, and this year everything seemed to be in place. An external panel supported a raise and the New York City Council voted themselves a substantial raise. The governor, arrogantly, set many preconditions, the raise faded away. There is no love in Albanytown for the chief executive. For the Republicans Cuomo is a potential presidential candidate, and he has to run again next year. No budget, blame the governor, maybe a campaign issue next year and a smear on his presidential resume. Yes, the issues are important, Raise the Age, Foundation Aid, aka, the state share of school funding, dollars for charter schools and the charter school cap. If no budget by later today an extender budget, meaning, let’s wait until the mid May release of a detailed Trump budget. It also means that school districts will have to create school budgets with the same dollars as last year.


Last week I spent seven hours listening to Linda Darling Hammond and Scott Marion lead the commissioner and the regents in the early stages of creating a state accountability plan as required by the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) law.  On Wednesday I attended and participated in one of the State Regional ESSA feedback sessions. About 75 parents, teachers and supervisors, sitting at tables with facilitators discussing questions proposed by the State Ed folks. The answers are required by the ESSA law.  It seemed mechanical.

The entire process will create a metric to determine the least effective schools in the state; instead of focus and priority schools, new names, same problem.

No matter how the plan is framed, no matter how the plan defines success: proficiency or growth or progress, we still identify the same number of schools.

The entire discussion almost sounded like an episode from National Public Radio’s  Prairie Home Companion  which takes place in the village of Lake Woebegone where all children are above average.

A significant number of parents chose to opt their children out of the exams, and, are sharply critical of the tests  themselves. Last year the State moved to untimed tests, and, not surprisingly the scores jumped, with a reluctant admission that comparing scores with the previous year was comparing apples to oranges.

There are alternatives to standardized tests.

One of the documents distributed, and not discussed, during the retreat is entitled, “15 Assessment Designs for the Innovative Assessment Pilot” (Read here)

One section of the ESSA law, allows the US Department of Education to permit selected states to establish an “Innovative Assessment and Accountability Demonstration Authority.” The feds have not released any info on how the states will be selected. There are a handful of states who are currently piloting alternative assessment designs approved by previous administration.

New Hampshire is in year four of a pilot, each year the number of schools has increased.

Currently, the nine NH PACE school districts are the only districts in the country that the U.S. Department of Education has exempted from giving all students in grades 3-8 and grade 11 a single statewide standardized assessment.  After years of preparation, the PACE districts will augment the statewide Smarter Balanced Assessment at grade bands with locally managed performance based assessments and the SAT for all students at grade 11.  PACE will demonstrate to the nation a new approach to assessment, one that goes beyond standardized testing to support locally managed assessments, developed BY OUR NH TEACHERS, that support the learning process while providing the accountability required by state and federal governments.

We’re not talking about a portfolio of student work “graded” by teachers, we’re talking about a major shift in instruction. Check out what are called Innovation Studios:

What is referred to as authentic assessment revolves around assessing actual student work, performance tasks, and a rubric to assess the level of the work. The Stanford Center for Assessment Learning and Equity (SCALE) has developed a range of performance tasks and rubrics (Check out here).   Students progress at different paces and achieve levels of competence at differing times, a classroom individualized to the individual student level is a different kind of classroom.

In the past the state has identified low performing schools based on test scores and graduation rates, what were called focus and priority schools, sent in a reviewer with a checklist, and moved on. New York City has spent many, many millions of additional dollars in the lowest achieving schools, called Renewal Schools; without significant progress.

Has the instructional focus changed?  Has the quality of leadership changed?  Yes, many schools have longer school days; however, if what we were doing  from 9 -3 wasn’t’ working well what make us thing that  9 – 5 will work better?

Have we designed a structure to scale up what does work?

The Center for New York City report, A Better Picture of Poverty tells us,

Chronic absenteeism correlates with deep poverty–high rates of homelessness, child abuse reports, male unemployment, and low levels of parental education. In fact, the report states, chronic absenteeism is a much better index of poverty than the traditional measure of the number of children eligible for free lunch. Moreover, it’s very hard for schools to escape the pull of poverty: only a handful of schools with above-average rates of chronic absenteeism had above-average pass rates on their standardized tests for math and reading–and most scored far below,

The Report continues,

… we’ve also looked at these absenteeism-endemic schools through the lens of what we characterize as a “total risk load” of social and educational factors in the schools … Some urban schools serve students and their families who face the heaviest misery and hardship imposed by poverty and family dysfunction, and these are typically in neighborhoods most bereft of the reserves of community “social capital” that can offset poverty’s worst effects …

Inspired by recent research on truly disadvantaged public schools in Chicago and Philadelphia, we devised a risk load instrument of 18 salient indicators from census data and other sources. We wanted to go beyond the yardsticks commonly used to measure poverty in the schools. When, for example, some 80 percent of public school students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, such familiar statistical brushes paint with strokes far too broad to be very useful.

Read the entire Report here.

If we simply redefine struggling schools we are failing the poorest families in the state.

If we not embark upon an exploration of rigorous alternative assessments we will continue to antagonize parents and educators.

If we ignore the pernicious impact of poverty we join the educational ostriches who continue to blame schools and teachers.

Be bold!!

* Include poverty risk load factors in any school accountability rubric

* Whether the feds chose us or not begin to explore alternative assessments, and,

* Explore the changing nature of classrooms that any assessment changes will require.

One response to “ESSA, Lake WoeBeGone and Confronting Authentic Assessments and the Pernicious Impact of Poverty

  1. The K-12 Myth

    Consider this widely held belief: “Millions of poor, disadvantaged students are trapped in failing schools.”

    That is a groundless belief. Schools do not fail. Students fail. Looking for the cause of student failure inside schools is folly. The environments inside schools are extremely uniform. The environments outside schools are widely and tragically varied.

    Children spend less than 9 percent of each childhood inside schools. Children spend more than 91 percent of each childhood outside of schools.

    Academic success does not correlate with children’s in-school experience. Academic success strongly correlates with children’s out-of-school experience, especially home life during the 50,000 hours between conception and the first day of kindergarten.

    Students are not the customers of education; they are the raw material. The quality of any finished product is limited by the quality of the raw material no matter how skilled the artisan.

    Even if most educators believe in the myth that millions of poor, disadvantaged students are trapped in failing schools, it is still a myth. The poor, disadvantaged kids who fail in school do not need better schools. They need better childhoods.


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