guesswork

Test analyst: Reading exam bar even lower than critics say

Passing the state reading test might be even easier than recent criticism has suggested, a former Department of Education testing analyst is arguing.

Independent statistician Frederick Smith examined the way free-response questions were graded and found that virtually every student received enough points on that section to then pass the test by guessing randomly on the multiple-choice questions.

Smith’s finding expands on an informal study by a city teacher who concluded that arbitrarily filling in a pattern of multiple-choice answers and leaving the open-response section blank could yield scores high enough to promote a student to the next grade in New York City. That amounts to eight correct multiple choice answers on the fifth-grade English Language Arts exam.

Smith found that students who answered only 6 multiple choice questions correctly almost certainly would also pass the Level 2 bar. That’s because an overwhelming majority–99 percent–of fifth-graders who took the exam in 2009 received at least two points on the open-ended essay and free response sections, which would boost them to the eight-point cut-off level.

In addition, more than 97 percent of students received three or more points on that section, meaning that they would have had to answer just five multiple-choice questions correctly to receive a Level 2 score.

“There’s no point in setting a cut-off score that you can guess your way through,” Smith said. By effectively reducing the number of correct multiple choice answers needed, he said, the tests significantly increased the odds that a student could guess randomly and still hop the Level 2 bar.

Columbia University Teacher’s College professor James Corter calculated the likelihood that randomly guessing students would score at these levels. He found that more than 57 percent of students guessing would answer at least six answers correctly. Just over 75 percent of guessing students were likely to receive five or more correct answers.

The statistical calculations apply only to students who are truly guessing randomly, but could apply to a student with no knowledge of test content.

The number of students receiving failing Level 1 scores has declined dramatically over the past four years. On the ELA exams Smith analyzed, the number of students scoring at Level 1 declined by 95 percent between 2006 and 2009.

Corter cautioned that even though almost all students are receiving at least partial credit on the free-response questions, it doesn’t necessarily mean the questions are easy.

But Smith said the low scoring bar harms the tests’ credibility.

“The fact remains that this is the first year you can waltz your way to a level 2,” Smith said. The scoring effectively removes the failing Level 1 as a meaningful tier in the test evaluations, he said.

Smith has been publicly calling for an independent testing ombudsman in New York City since the early 1980s. He said the results of his examination highlight the need for a truly independent auditor of the state testing program.

“It has to have real authority, real teeth, and be able to get data without having to beg for it from the Department of Education,” he said. “This is the era of accountability. It’s time for some real answers here.”

Betsy DeVos

To promote virtual schools, Betsy DeVos cites a graduate who’s far from the norm

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in June.

If Betsy Devos is paying any attention to unfolding critiques of virtual charter schools, she didn’t let it show last week when she spoke to free-market policy advocates in Bellevue, Washington.

Just days after Politico published a scathing story about virtual charters’ track record in Pennsylvania, DeVos, the U.S. education secretary, was touting their successes at the Washington Policy Center’s annual dinner.

DeVos’s speech was largely identical in its main points to one she gave at Harvard University last month. But she customized the stories of students who struggled in traditional schools with local examples, and in doing so provided an especially clear example of why she believes in virtual schools.

From the speech:

I also think of Sandeep Thomas. Sandeep grew up impoverished in Bangalore, India and experienced terrible trauma in his youth. He was adopted by a loving couple from New Jersey, but continued to suffer from the unspeakable horrors he witnessed in his early years. He was not able to focus in school, and it took him hours to complete even the simplest assignment.

This changed when his family moved to Washington, where Sandeep was able to enroll in a virtual public school. This option gave him the flexibility to learn in the quiet of his own home and pursue his learning at a pace that was right for him. He ended up graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA, along with having earned well over a year of college credit. Today, he’s working in finance and he is a vocal advocate for expanding options that allow students like him a chance to succeed.

But Thomas — who spoke at a conference of a group DeVos used to chair, Advocates for Children, in 2013 as part of ongoing work lobbying for virtual charters — is hardly representative of online school students.

In Pennsylvania, Politico reported last week, 30,000 students are enrolled in virtual charters with an average 48 percent graduation rate. In Indiana, an online charter school that had gotten a stunning six straight F grades from the state — one of just three schools in that positionis closing. And an Education Week investigation into Colorado’s largest virtual charter school found that not even a quarter of the 4,000 students even log on to do work every day.

The fact that in many states with online charters, large numbers of often needy students have enrolled without advancing has not held DeVos back from supporting the model. (A 2015 study found that students who enrolled in virtual charters in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin did just as well as similar students who stayed in brick-and-mortar schools.) In fact, she appeared to ignore their track records during the confirmation process in January, citing graduation rates provided by a leading charter operator that were far higher — nearly 40 points in one case — than the rates recorded by the schools’ states.

She has long backed the schools, and her former organization has close ties to major virtual school operators, including K12, the one that generated the inflated graduation numbers. In her first week as education secretary, DeVos said, “I expect there will be more virtual schools.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the location of the dinner.

expansion plans

Here are the next districts where New York City will start offering preschool for 3-year-olds

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, left, and Mayor Bill de Blasio, center, visited a "Mommy and Me" class in District 27 in Queens, where the city is set to expand 3-K For All.

New York City officials on Tuesday announced which school districts are next in line for free pre-K for 3-year-olds, identifying East Harlem and the eastern neighborhoods of Queens for expansion of the program.

Building on its popular universal pre-K program for 4-year-olds, the city this year began serving even younger students with “3-K For All” in two high-needs school districts. Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he wants to make 3-K available to every family who wants it by 2021.

“Our education system all over the country had it backwards for too long,” de Blasio said at a press conference. “We are recognizing we have to reach kids younger and more deeply if we’re going to be able to give them the foundation they need.”

But making preschool available to all of the city’s 3-year-olds will require an infusion of $700 million from the state or federal governments. In the meantime, de Blasio said the city can afford to expand to eight districts, at a cost of $180 million of city money a year.

Funding isn’t the only obstacle the city faces to make 3-K available universally. De Blasio warned that finding the room for an estimated 60,000 students will be a challenge. Space constraints were a major factor in picking the next districts for expansion, he said.

“I have to tell you, this will take a lot of work,” he said, calling it “even harder” than the breakneck rollout of pre-K for all 4-year-olds. “We’re building something brand new.”

De Blasio, a Democrat who is running for re-election in November, has made expansion of early childhood education a cornerstone of his administration. The city kicked off its efforts this September in District 7 in the South Bronx, and District 23 in Brownsville, Brooklyn. More than 2,000 families applied for those seats, and 84 percent of those living in the pilot districts got an offer for enrollment, according to city figures.

According to the timeline released Thursday, the rollout will continue next school year in District 4 in Manhattan, which includes East Harlem; and District 27 in Queens, which includes Broad Channel, Howard Beach, Ozone Park and Rockaways.

By the 2019 – 2020 school year, the city plans to launch 3-K in the Bronx’s District 9, which includes the Grand Concourse, Highbridge and Morrisania neighborhoods; and District 31, which spans all of Staten Island.

The 2020 – 2021 school year would see the addition of District 19 in Brooklyn, which includes East New York; and District 29 in Queens, which includes Cambria Heights, Hollis, Laurelton, Queens Village, Springfield Gardens and St. Albans.

With all those districts up and running, the city expects to serve 15,000 students.

Admission to the city’s pre-K programs is determined by lottery. Families don’t have to live in the district where 3-K is being offered to apply for a seat, though preference will be given to students who do. With every expansion, the city expects it will take two years for each district to have enough seats for every district family who wants one.