Higher pass rates could be due to tougher tests, expert says

The number of correct answers needed to pass state exams is falling — but the head of the state’s testing oversight board says that’s because the tests are actually getting more difficult.

Critics charge that the tests have become so easy that students can guess their way through them. But there might be a good reason for the shift, said Howard Everson, chair of the state body that oversees the testing process: As the individual exam questions have gotten harder, students need to answer fewer of them correctly to earn the same score.

“The idea you have to remove from your head is that a test has a certain number of questions and all of those questions have the same weight every year,” Everson said.

Instead, he said, the state has asked CTB/McGraw-Hill, the company that publishes the exams, to make test questions slightly harder every year. The publisher then adjusts the scale that calculates a student’s final score from the number of correct answers according to the difficulty level of that year’s questions.

The modifications ensure that the test is scored fairly from year to year, Everson said, so that a student correctly answering seven relatively easy multiple choice questions one year would not receive the same final score on an exam as a student correctly answering seven harder questions a different year.

But a side effect is that students have to answer fewer questions correctly each year to pass the tests.

In 2006, for example, a seventh-grade student needed to earn 28 out of 50 possible correct answers on a combination of multiple choice and open-ended questions to score a Level 3 on the math exam, indicating that the student met state learning standards. In 2009, a seventh-grader needed only 22 of the 50 correct, a decline of nearly 12 percent.

Similarly, fifth-graders in 2009 needed half the total number of correct answers on their math exam for a Level 3 score, down more than 8 percent from 2006.

If the state wanted to head off this trend, it could modify the scale and raise the “cut scores” that separate proficiency levels, Everson said. (The cut scores are based on a complicated point-to-score conversion process detailed here.) But the scales and cut scores have not been reviewed since 2004, he said.

The trend is especially relevant in New York City, where students in grades 3-8 must now score at least a Level 2 on the exams to be promoted to the next grade.

The ease with which students can hit the Level 2 mark may account for the dramatic reduction of the numbers of failing students in New York City. Only a tiny proportion of city students now score at the lowest level on the state tests.

Some critics dispute Everson’s assertion that test questions are getting harder. They point to a recent study that revealed that some test questions are reused year after year in virtually identical form.

Everson said his committee determined that the tests were technically sound. But if student performance is truly improving, he said, the way the tests are graded should change.

“It’s certainly time for another assessment of the assessments,” he said. “We do want to make adjustments if we’re testing a higher-ability population in 2010 than we were in 2000.”

Everson emphasized that the elements that influence test score results are complex. Without an updated review of whether higher  scores truly reflect greater learning, he said, it is difficult to know how to interpret exam results. Everson has been calling for a review but so far has not persuaded the state to undertake one.

“That’s the question that goes begging at the moment,” he said. “Are the abilities of the children really improving? And if they are, what does that imply for the testing program?”

first steps

Superintendent León secures leadership team, navigates evolving relationship with board

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León at Tuesday's school board meeting.

As Newark’s new superintendent prepares for the coming academic year, the school board approved the final members of his leadership team Tuesday and began piecing together a roadmap to guide his work.

The board confirmed three assistant superintendents chosen by Superintendent Roger León: Jose Fuentes, the principal of First Avenue School in the North Ward; Sandra Rodriguez, a Hoboken principal who previously oversaw Newark Public Schools’ early childhood office; and Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School in the East Ward. They join three other assistant superintendents León selected for his team, along with a deputy superintendent, chief of staff, and several other officials.

The three assistant superintendents confirmed Tuesday had first come before the board in June, but at that time none of them secured enough votes to be approved. During last month’s meeting, the board assented to several of León’s leadership picks and to his decision to remove many people from the district’s central office, but it also blocked him from ousting several people.

This week, Board Chair Josephine Garcia declined to comment on the board’s reversal, and León did not respond to a request for comment.

What is clear is that the board and León are still navigating their relationship.

In February, the board regained local control of the district 22 years after the state seized control of the district due to poor performance and mismanagement. The return to local control put the board back in charge of setting district policy and hiring the superintendent, who previously answered only to the state. Still, the superintendent, not the board, is responsible for overseeing the district’s day-to-day operations.

During a board discussion Tuesday, Garcia hinted at that delicate balance of power.

“Now that we’re board members, we want to make sure that, of course, yes, we’re going to have input and implementation,” but that they don’t overstep their authority, she said.

Under state rules, the board is expected to develop district goals and policies, which the superintendent is responsible for acting on. But León — a former principal who spent the past decade serving as an assistant superintendent — has his own vision for the district, which he hopes to convince the board to support, he said in a recent interview on NJTV.

“It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see as appropriate,” he said.

Another matter still being ironed out by the board and superintendent is communication.

León did not notify the full board before moving to force out 31 district officials and administrators, which upset some members. And he told charter school leaders in a closed-door meeting that he plans to keep intact the single enrollment system for district and charter schools — a controversial policy the board is still reviewing.

The district has yet to make a formal announcement about the staff shake-up, including the appointment of León’s new leadership team. And when the board voted on the new assistant superintendents Tuesday, it used only the appointed officials’ initials — not their full names. However, board member Leah Owens stated the officials’ full names when casting her vote.

The full names, titles and salaries of public employees are a matter of public record under state law.

Earlier, board member Yambeli Gomez had proposed improved communication as a goal for the board.

“Not only communication within the board and with the superintendent,” she said, “but also communication with the public in a way that’s more organized.”

The board spent much of Tuesday’s meeting brainstorming priorities for the district.

Members offered a grab bag of ideas, which were written on poster paper. Under the heading “student achievement,” they listed literacy, absenteeism, civics courses, vocational programs, and teacher quality, among other topics. Under other “focus areas,” members suggested classroom materials, parent involvement, and the arts.

Before the school year begins in September, León is tasked with shaping the ideas on that poster paper into specific goals and an action plan.

After the meeting, education activist Wilhelmina Holder said she hopes the board will focus its attention on a few key priorities.

“There was too much of a laundry list,” she said.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”