The Grades 3-8 Testing Disaster (Yet Again!): Can the Commissioner/Regents Satisfy the Demands of Anti-Testing Folks?

If you happened to be watching TV in the Albany area Monday night and saw the demonstration on the steps of the State Education Building (in the rain) I was one of the guys/gals holding “” a sign (wearing a the red jacket).

This was a bad week, a really bad week for the commissioner, the state education department and the regents. Last week was the first round of grades 3-8 testing, the English Language Arts (ELA) test and state ed encouraged districts to choose the computer-based testing (CBT) option; a lot less expensive than paper/pencil tests – a computer glitch ensued and thousands of kids had to re-take the test. See SED timelines, numbers of kids impacted and plans going forward here

Regents Rosa, Young and Tilles all expressed outrage, as did the commissioner, at the testing company, Questar/ETS, the Educational Testing Service acquired Questar a year ago. ETS provides the SAT and the AP exams; however, they failed us, and this is the second time the test administration had serious glitches; this is the fourth year of a five year contract. In spite of the “outrage” SED is committed to CBT; whether the Regents member are committed is an open question.

Let’s review some basic questions:

 Why does New York State continue to give annual tests in grades 3-8?

The 2002 No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law requires that all students are tested and the feds hold the purse strings – New York State receives $1.6 billion in annual education funding. The 2016 reauthorization of the law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) continued the annual testing requirement in spite of pushback from teacher organizations. A coalition of civil rights organizations  insisted that annual testing continue in the law,

“Removing the requirement for annual testing would be a devastating step backward, for it is very hard to make sure our education system is serving every child well when we don’t have reliable, comparable achievement data on every child every year,” Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust, said in recent testimony before the Senate education panel. Her group joined 20 civil rights organizations to lobby Congress to keep the requirement to test all children each year in math and ­reading.

 Can’t parents simply opt out of taking the state tests?

In the New York State the answer is yes, and about 20% of parents opt their children out of participating in state tests, the opt outs are concentrated on Long Island, about 50% of families on Long Island opt out, and other more affluent suburban communities; in New York City the opt out numbers are very low and concentrated in a few higher achieving schools.

What if New York State, or, a school or school district decides to not offer the test? Are there sanctions?

The law  leaves the opt out question to the states,

ESSA affirms states’ authority over the policies governing parents “opting” their children out of state standardized tests, but it maintains the requirement that 95 percent of children in each school, as well as 95 percent of students in each subgroup, be tested. The big change from NCLB is that schools will not be subject to federally prescribed corrective action if they fail to meet the 95 percent participation rate. Instead, states will establish their own consequences for schools that fail to meet this requirement.

 SED has been leaning on school districts to provide plans to increase the participation rate, with considerable pushback from opt out parent organizations; from 2017 to 2018 the state opt out rate decreased by 1%.

Can the feds take actions against New York State if the opt out numbers don’t decrease?

A very sensitive question: does New York State law prevail, namely, the parental right to opt out, or, do the feds have a right to withhold federal dollars if a state does not take actions, satisfactory to the feds, to increase participation rates?

New York State is walking a tight rope, urging school districts to increase the participation, without alienating electeds and keeping the feds at arms length.

If the feds withheld federal funds, the state would challenge in the courts, and dollars that provide services to the poorest student would be at risk.

Can states use alternative assessment tools, such as portfolios or performance-based assessments in lieu of the traditional tests?

The law, ESSA, does have a provision that invites states to apply for permission to establish alternative assessment pilots in addition to the standard assessments, no dollars were provided. Two states have been approved, New Hampshire is utilizing performance-based assessments and Louisiana using content-based instead of common core-based tests, a few other states will be applying for minor changes. Forty high schools, mostly in New York City, have had waivers from state ed for decades, students only take the English Regents, the other subjects, a “portfolio/roundtable” system replaces the regents exams, the schools are referred to as the Consortium schools.

A few Regents members have asked about state-supported alternative assessment pilots, the commissioner has not been enthusiastic, quoting the lack of funding.

 How are the test results used? For state ed? For schools?

The ESSA law requires states to identify low performing schools, in New York State called Targeted School Improvement (TSI) and Comprehensive School Improvement (CSI), the lowest achieving schools on the grades 3-8 ELA and Math tests and high schools with graduation rates below 67%. The schools have three years to show improvement or face sanctions that could result in the closing of the schools. Unfortunately aside from identifying the schools the state does not have the capacity to assist the schools. The state uses a diagnostic tool to identify underlying issues, a checklist; the responsibility to improve the schools is left to the school district. Schools districts that have failed to appropriately support the schools in the first place.

Schools can use the results; an error matrix identifies most common incorrect answers, the school can disaggregate the “errors” by category, provide to teachers who can target these particular standards in lessons. BTW, teachers have always used “errors” to guide future instruction.

At this point I do not see any pathways to changes: the opt out parents will continue to opt out and advocate for eliminating the tests, or, at least making testing at the discretion of the district: highly unlikely. The commissioner will continue to satisfy the feds and opt out parents, not likely. Legislators will try and “satisfy parents,” whatever that means.

The governor has avoided the issue.

Bottom line:  I doubt we will see any changes, unless the Regents decide to abandon computer-based testing.

One response to “The Grades 3-8 Testing Disaster (Yet Again!): Can the Commissioner/Regents Satisfy the Demands of Anti-Testing Folks?

  1. Testing in every phase of American, whether it is for blue collar or white collar jobs is and needs to continue to be the norm at all costs. More then 30 years ago this same discussion was going on. and a reporter for The NY Times went to visit an all black elementary school in East Harlem to interview a black female iconic Principal . The young white reporter asked her if she planned on giving up testing as per the then current hue and cry that testing was unfair to minority students. She asked the reporter if in fact Harvard and Yale had done so. The reporter said he didn’t know, and then as she began to walk away from him, she paused and turned to the reporter and she declared “I’ll give up testing when they do”. Portfolio assessment doesn’t get it done. Giving discounts and pro rating scores owing to minority heritage is not what minority families want for their children . They want what we all want, and that is to have a tool which fairly measures academic growth and development. Without testing every aspect of pupil registrations, pupil program placements, pupil achievement is laid open to corruption. I don’t want a Doctor, or a Lawyer or a Dentist, Electrician, Plumber, Nurse, or Auto Mechanic to service me unless they have passed a test. BTW, the way to promote success in test taking, is to practice, practice practice. That is how you get to Carneghie Hall and beyond!


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