PPI Series: Making Sense of the Controversy Over Raising New York’s Education Standards: What Is At Stake?

PPI Common Core: Here to Stay?

Part eight of an ongoing series on higher standards in New York State

Now that the grades 3-8 ELA and math tests reflect higher standards, and far fewer students are labeled “proficient,” it is commonplace to hear complaints about overuse of “high-stakes tests” in our schools.  Typically, a test is defined as having “high stakes” if it is used to make important decisions such as whether a student will be promoted to the next grade or awarded a high school diploma.  It is worth reviewing exactly what stakes are attached to New York’s ELA and math tests.  For many years (predating the current controversies), New York has required that students pass the Comprehensive English Regents exam and at least one math Regents exam in order to obtain a Regents diploma, so those are indeed high-stakes exams.  The ELA and math tests that are administered to all students in grades 3-8 do not carry high stakes for students, however.  Per explicit state policy, districts and schools are not encouraged to use the grades 3-8 ELA and math test results as the basis for decisions about placing students in particular courses or promoting them to the next grade.  If they do take the test results into consideration, it should be in conjunction with other information, to ensure they are looking at a complete picture of student performance.  The primary way in which schools use individual students’ test results is to identify those who are may be struggling and could benefit from extra help (known as “academic intervention services”) in reading or math.  In other words, students are identified and offered remedial education early in their school careers, as soon as the need emerges.  Many parents and educators object that the state has set expectations above “grade level” and that too many students are therefore being identified as in need of support.  In response, the state gave districts some flexibility in deciding which students should receive academic support services.  But the state’s essential position is that the expectations have been set externally, by colleges, employers, and other nations—all of whom were demanding more of high school graduates than our education system had heretofore been delivering—and that New York’s education system must raise standards to keep pace with the changing global economy.

Schools and teachers have numerous methods of determining whether particular students might require academic support, and indeed that is not the primary purpose of the federally mandated annual testing program.   Rather, the tests were instituted to provide a uniform source of data by which schools, districts, and states can be measured and held accountable for their effectiveness in educating students of different demographic groups.  Civil rights groups and advocates for students with disabilities have hailed the importance of the annual ELA and math tests in shining a light on achievement gaps that have, for too many years, left certain student populations behind.

Since 2010, New York expanded use of the tests from school and district accountability to include teacher and principal accountability as well, and these are the “high stakes” that have generated the bulk of the controversy.  As part of its successful bid to win $700 million under the federal Race to the Top program, the State Education Department and the New York State United Teachers union negotiated a law that requires districts to conduct thorough annual evaluations of all teachers and principals, and student outcomes are one required component of those evaluations.  (The majority of the rating is based on classroom observations by the principal or another trained evaluator.)  Teachers are not rated based on the percentage of their students scoring “proficient,” as that would be patently unfair to teachers of needier students.  Instead, all teachers of grades 4-8 ELA and math receive a “value-added” score based on how much each student improved on the state test compared with that same student’s performance in previous years.  The mathematical model controls for poverty and other factors, and teachers are compared with others who taught similar populations.  New York’s new Commissioner of Education, Mary Ellen Elia, successfully oversaw a similar system in Hillsborough County, Florida.  Hillsborough’s system awarded bonuses to effective teachers and had the support of the local union.  But the union backlash in New York has been fierce.  All of the NYSUT officers who negotiated the initial law were voted out, and the new leadership organized a campaign urging parents to opt their children out of the grades 3-8 ELA and math tests.

A primary rationale behind the opt-out movement is that if too few students take the tests, the data will become useless for evaluation purposes.  Of course, the data also become less usable for all other legitimate purposes, including measuring achievement gaps, making policy decisions, and conducting research into educational effectiveness.

Please click here to read part seven in this ongoing series.

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