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NYC’s COVID catchup plan for students? More tests. Here’s what we know about them.

A teenage girl writes with pencil at a desk in a classroom.
NYC schools are giving a new battery of tests to help students catch up after more than a year of learning interrupted by the pandemic.
SDI Productions / Getty Images

As part of New York City’s plan to help students catch up after more than a year of interrupted learning during the pandemic, students have begun taking a battery of tests.

The city is spending $36 million on academic assessments — to be given three times during the course of the year — to help determine what students know and where they may be falling behind, according to education department officials.

Officials hope the results will be used by teachers to adjust their instruction and provide individualized support to students who need it.

“Universal screeners will allow schools to keep their finger on the pulse of student progress and address the pandemic’s impact on learning,” said education department spokesperson Sarah Casasnovas.

Data trickling in from across the country shows the health crisis has knocked many students off course. Early results show learning slowed for millions of students, with deeper declines at high-poverty schools compared to more affluent schools. Drops were also bigger for students who are Black, Latino, and Native American, compared to white and Asian students.

But in New York City, some parents and educators question whether tests are a good use of time and money as students readjust to school amid an ongoing health crisis. At least one principal is refusing to administer them. Families at some schools are organizing to opt out of them.

“This is not trauma informed. It is not culturally responsive,” said Kemala Karmen, a Brooklyn mother of a high schooler and co-founder of NYC Opt Out, a group that advocates for boycotting standardized testing. “It’s wrong anyway. It’s especially wrong coming back from the pandemic.”

Education department officials stressed the assessments are only used for diagnostics and described them as “low stakes” since they don’t affect a student’s grades.

The first round of the exams, administered over the course of four weeks, is already underway.

Here’s what we know about the tests.

What tests are students taking?

Most students, except for those in pre-K and 3-K, are expected to sit for the assessments. Most will take one of the education department’s recommended tests.

In kindergarten through second grade, the recommended assessment for literacy is a screening tool created by the nonprofit Acadience.

The city’s preferred math tests for all grades, and English tests for the older grades, are i-Ready from the for-profit Curriculum Associates, or the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) Growth assessment, created by the nonprofit NWEA.

Acadience’s literacy screen can take as little as a minute for teachers to administer one-on-one to children. They quiz students on their letter-naming fluency, ability to sound out letters, and decoding skills.

All the other tests, including math tests for students in kindergarten through second grade, are given on a computer.

Math tests in kindergarten through second grade should take between 10 and 15 minutes for the assessments created by Acadience. But it will take students in those grades about 35 minutes to complete the MAP Growth or i-Ready computer-based assessments, according to the education department. In the later grades, MAP Growth and i-Ready take between 45 minutes to an hour for both reading and math.

The computer-based assessments are described as “adaptive,” meaning that questions are supposed to get easier or harder based on whether students answer correctly, and some students may take more or less time to complete them. One high school teacher said he was told to schedule two 45-minute periods for math MAP assessments, in case students don’t finish in a single session.

Schools can choose to use other tests that aren’t on the city’s recommended list, but principals must get alternatives approved by their superintendent. They can’t be school-created tests, mock state tests, or Running Records of Literacy, a Columbia University program already used by many schools.

Pushback against testing

In 2019, district officials estimated that 1,200 out of some 1,600 schools already used periodic assessments, and at least 400 were already using MAP. The city has been expanding the use of these tests since then, starting under former schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, who implemented them in schools identified by the state as struggling.

Carranza argued that giving the same tests on a wider scale would give the system better information about how students are doing in “real time,” and about where to invest more resources.

With students coming back to school buildings after many spent more than a year learning online, education department leaders now say the tests are part of an all-out effort to make up for interrupted learning time.

However, educators in New York City and beyond have doubts about how useful a new round of assessments will really be. In 2019, Boston public schools put a moratorium on district-required standardized tests, including MAP. In July, Chicago public schools nixed the use of MAP tests, opting for other assessments that officials said would help educators get a quicker, more accurate gauge of student learning.

In New York City, one elementary school principal recently wrote to her staff to say the school would not administer the assessments, even though the education department is requiring them. It was taking too much time to train teachers and administrators on giving the tests, the principal wrote, calling the city’s plan “misguided.” The principal asked to remain anonymous since her school is violating the education department’s directive.

“In order to pay attention to both academic and social emotional needs, teachers need to use their time wisely, not on assessments like these,” her email said.

An elementary school teacher in Crown Heights said she felt the tests were frustrating for children and not developmentally appropriate. The teacher, who asked not to be named because she feared retribution by the education department, said she recently noticed a fourth-grader on the verge of tears while standing in line to use the bathroom.

“I called her over, and she was doing her math assessment and she said, ‘I’m stuck on number 34 and my friend’s already on number 50, and he’s still not done.’ And she was like, ‘The question is about fractions, and we’re not even doing fractions until the end of the year,’” the teacher recounted.

When will assessments be given?

There are three testing windows, with each lasting four weeks and additional time allotted for make-up tests for any students who were absent.

The first round kicked off on Sept. 27 and will continue through Oct. 22.

The next testing window runs from Jan. 10 through Feb. 11.

The last round of testing is scheduled for May 9, wrapping up on June 3.

Those windows don’t mean that an individual student will spend four weeks in testing — it just means that schools have that timeframe to make sure all their students participate.

How will the assessments be used?

The biggest question is what schools, their districts, and the education department will do with the information gleaned from the assessments, how schools will use the data, and what additional support the education department can offer.

Bobson Wong, a high school math teacher in Queens, was concerned about losing class time to give the assessments, especially when he feels like he already has a good grasp on what students do and don’t know. Wong wasn’t sure how more data would help him as a teacher.

“Even in the best case where students take the test and demonstrate need, what am I supposed to do with that information?” he asked. “I’m not given any more time to plan individual lessons with these students. I’m not given enough time as is. So I have more information and no resources to do anything with that.”

Schools across District 8 in the Bronx have already been using a common set of assessments, including Acadience, to help provide targeted instruction and support in the classroom. Superintendent Jennifer Joynt said the results are used to determine specific interventions for students, whether that’s instruction in phonemic awareness or enrichment through projects or book clubs.

As students show progress, or stall, teachers use assessment data to tailor their instruction, she said. The use of standardized assessments across the district has been paired with extensive training for teachers and school leaders, who can access results as soon as children complete their tests.

“We decided to give these screeners because schools were giving different tests and giving different methods to assess students, and we wanted to be able to say, ‘How are students reading in District 8,’” Joynt said. “If we have concrete, research based assessments that offer us data into where students are performing, then we can really make strategic decisions around teaching and learning.”

Correction: This story previously misstated how many New York City schools were using MAP tests in 2019. At least 400 were using those assessments.

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