testing ground

City may let some schools swap state exams for new, online tests next year

PHOTO: Geoff Decker

Some New York City schools could jump ahead of the rest of the state next year by taking new, online Common Core tests instead of the current state exams, according to city officials.

While New York is part of a group of states that helped develop the new, online tests, state policymakers have decided not to administer them when they are first made available next spring. But education officials in New York City are considering asking the state for waivers that would give some schools the option of taking the new tests next year, according to Department of Education officials and a school administrator briefed on the plan.

Beginning next month, 95 city schools will take pilot versions of the new test, which was designed by a consortium of states called the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC. At a meeting last month with leaders of some of those schools, Deputy Chancellor Phil Weinberg also said the city could ask for waivers if the field tests go well, according to an attendee.

“He kind of said if we can prove it’s feasible, then it’s something they would push really hard to do,” said Gary Shevell, assistant principal of Manhattan’s P.S. 116, which is giving the pilot test to its fifth-grade students in June.

But even as the city explores ways to begin transitioning to the new tests, serious barriers stand in the way of their full rollout across the city and state. The state has noted that the assessments would require new technology, more testing time, and different funding models, even as districts are still reeling from last year’s switch to Common Core-aligned tests, which sent proficiency rates plummeting.

“Even if PARCC is the best test out there,” said Ken Wagner, the state’s associate education commissioner, “is right now the best time to consider a change?”

After adopting the Common Core standards several years ago, New York and the other PARCC member states set out to develop corresponding tests using funds from a $186 million federal grant. The computer-based tests were designed to deliver student results more quickly than past exams, to allow for cross-state score comparisons, and to better engage students — for instance, they feature videos alongside reading passages and drag-and-drop answers. (PARCC will offer both online and paper-and-pencil versions of the test next year, and both kinds of tests are being piloted in city schools this year.)

Despite its investment in the new tests, New York hedged its bets by also creating its own Common Core exams, which it administered to schools for the first time last year. That put New York well ahead of most other PARCC states, which are waiting until 2015, when the PARCC assessment is ready to go, to give their first Common Core-aligned state tests.

State Education Commissioner John King suggested last summer that having its own Common Core tests gives New York flexibility in deciding when to switch to PARCC. Last fall, the state Board of Regents, which sets statewide education policy, officially put off that change by at least one year when it decided not to administer the PARCC tests in 2015.

Critics who felt the state was not ready to jump so quickly to another test, especially one requiring extensive technology, welcomed that decision. But the delay disappointed others, including critics of the current Pearson-made exams who believe the PARCC tests will better assess Common Core learning.

Lisa Ripperger, the principal of P.S. 234 in Tribeca who joined dozens of Manhattan principals in denouncing this year’s English tests, said the PARCC sample questions that have been released appear more closely aligned to the standards. She added that her school has already spent $100,000 buying laptops for students to take the new online exams.

“I always expected that we’d be taking the PARCC test next year,” she said. “It’s really infuriating.”

City officials seem aware that some schools here are equipped to administer the PARCC tests next year, even if many New York schools are not. For that reason, they are closely watching Massachusetts, which is planning to give districts the option of taking the state exams or the PARCC tests next year.

Districts that choose the new assessment will be exempted from repercussions if students’ scores decline, according to Massachusetts Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester, who added that the plan is still waiting for a sign-off from federal officials. The scores also won’t have repercussions for teacher evaluations next year, with the test results only being used to set score baselines to measure student growth in subsequent years, Chester said.

“We’re definitely intrigued by that idea,” said the New York City Department of Education official.

Still, New York faces steep challenges in transitioning to the PARCC assessments.

The online version of the test requires computer hardware, Internet bandwidth, and technological knowhow that many schools lack. There are workarounds: Schools can download the exam before administering it, and only one class at a time needs access to computers.

But many schools don’t even meet those minimum requirements. Only a quarter of city schools currently have enough devices to administer the online test, according to officials, and many of the devices schools do have are outdated. Getting schools statewide up to speed will take considerable time, said Wagner, the state education official.

“My guess is that it will be a multiyear process,” he said.

Costs are another concern. The current estimated price of the PARCC end-of-year tests is $29.50 per student for the online exams, which includes scoring costs. (The paper tests cost a few dollars more.) Right now, New York State only spends $13 per student on its tests, but it estimates that districts spend about $20 per student on scoring, which makes their total costs comparable to PARCC’s tests. Still, New York’s unusual cost-sharing model between the state and districts would complicate any switch to different exams.

A more serious hurdle may be the length of time that students spend on the PARCC tests. New York estimates that its math and English tests each last up to about three hours, depending on the grade level they are assessing. But students could spend up to six hours on both the math and English PARCC tests, though that time would be divided between separate performance-based and multiple-choice assessments, according to a presentation prepared by the state.

Testing time is now a legal matter, since the state budget deal included a cap on the amount of time students can spend taking state-mandated exams: 1 percent of annual instructional time, or about 11.4 hours. Laura McGiffert Slover, PARCC’s chief executive officer, said in an interview that the pilot tests would provide a clearer picture of the actual time the tests require, and added that she is confident the length will fall below New York’s 1-percent cap.

Amid the logistical puzzles, New York policymakers also face thorny political questions in switching to PARCC: Do they want to take on another new test so soon after sparking outrage with last year’s new and harder exams, which Commissioner King has defended as high quality? And are they ready to relinquish some authority over the way New York students are tested?

Meanwhile, critics of standardized tests and the consequences attached to them promise to continue their campaign against the state’s testing regime, even if it adopts new assessments.

“We do not see PARCC as an improvement,” said Nancy Cauthen, a member of the advocacy group Change the Stakes. “PARCC will be a new battleground for us.”

Future of Work

Trump’s education department merger plan echoes Indiana priorities under Pence, Holcomb

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Then-Gov. Mike Pence speaks at a school choice rally at the Indiana statehouse in 2016.

President Trump’s proposal to merge the U.S. Department of Education and the Department of Labor might sound familiar to Hoosiers.

The education and workforce development rhetoric hearkens back to some of Vice President Mike Pence’s education priorities as Indiana’s chief executive, as well as those of his predecessor and successor.

“This sounds very Indiana,” said Betsy Wiley, executive director of the Institute for Quality Education, a group that advocates for school choice. “This sounds very Gov. (Mitch) Daniels, Gov. Pence, Gov. (Eric) Holcomb-like, in terms of the last 12 to 15 years here in our state.”

It’s not really surprising that Indiana and the federal government again share education policy goals — U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has repeatedly pointed to Indiana’s charter school and private school voucher systems as models for the nation.

Across the country, connections between workforce and K-12 education have been increasingly emphasized, and Indiana has been legislating in this vein for years. As governor, Pence expanded the state’s career and technical education programs, an accomplishment he still touts. It also bears similarities to the efforts of Indiana’s current Gov. Eric Holcomb, who has followed in previous governors’ footsteps by prioritizing workforce development and how it connects to education in his 2018 legislative agenda.

And though some local education advocates cheer the federal push to link K-12 education and workforce, to others, it’s troubling.

When she saw the news of the merger proposal, Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, felt a rush of deja vu: “Oh here we go — and I’m not sure that’s a good thing.”

When Pence ran for governor in 2012, he said the state was too focused on getting students to college — there was too little effort on getting them up to speed for heading directly into the workforce. There were plenty of jobs, he said, that paid well and didn’t need a four-year degree.

As soon as he got into office, Pence successfully pushed through two bills creating regional works councils and a state career council that would help the state better understand job needs and develop relationships between schools and local employers.

And the career-focused influence has continued even after Pence left office in 2016. The state’s new graduation pathways system, passed last year, redirects the Core 40 diploma’s more academic focus toward one that more equally weighs job-related post-secondary plans.

Wiley said Indiana, under Holcomb, has made even more progress in this arena by consolidating efforts into a workforce cabinet and pushing for an appointed state schools chief. While the state still has a ways to go, she said, it serves as an example, and she applauds the Trump administration for making the proposal.

“What is trying to be done, again, is to figure out how to be more efficient and effective as the federal government, and better serve the customer, be it either the K-12 level student or the adult in terms of workforce training or development,” she said. “Those are admirable goals.”

Meredith, though, said the efforts to make schools a pipeline for the workplace seem short-sighted.

“What is the purpose of K-12 education? Is it to prepare individuals to go into a job that exists right now, or is it to teach them about a love of learning and give them the skills to be able to adapt?” she said. “I would argue that’s what we ought to be doing — giving them creative thinking skills, giving them basic life skills, teaching them how to navigate the world.”

As Chalkbeat has reported, the merger itself likely faces an uphill battle to congressional approval — if it even stands a chance at. So far, efforts to scale back or get rid of the federal education department have failed.

Are Children Learning

More Memphis area students are graduating high school. But what does that mean?

PHOTO: Jacinthia Jones
The 2018 spring graduation for the Memphis Virtual School was held May 22 in the Hamilton High School auditorium.

The number of students graduating from high schools in Shelby County and across the state has been rising for the last 10 years, but recent allegations of widespread improper grade changes in Memphis last year called into question if graduation rates were marred.

The results of a deeper probe of seven schools with high numbers of grade changes on transcripts is expected this month. But Shelby County Schools officials said a number of strategies have contributed to the district’s growing number of graduates and they believe better monitoring of grade changes would protect the integrity of those numbers, including sudden jumps.

“It’s our goal to aggressively increase academic performance and graduation rates at a more rapid pace, and we’ve implemented a number of strategies to do so,” the district said in a statement. “Therefore, it would be imprudent to see jumps in graduation rates alone as an indicator of improper grading practices.”

Grade changes had an impact on how many students graduated at Trezevant High School, the first school implicated in the controversy. Fifty-three students over four years obtained a diploma without passing the necessary classes, an investigation found.

Leaving high school with a diploma greatly increases a student’s chances of finding a job with a living wage and avoiding jail. But Tennessee policymakers have been pushing for more education beyond high school since college graduates and those with job certifications through technical colleges and similar schools have an even better chance of higher incomes later in life.

School districts often tie student performance to their graduation rates, citing better academics as one factor in rising graduation rates. In addition, federal law requires states to report their districts’ rates every year to monitor if some groups of students are lagging behind their peers.

Marisa Cannata, who consults with districts through Vanderbilt University on how to improve high schools, said getting a high school diploma “doesn’t mean that they’re college-ready.” The only thing the number of students who graduated truly measures is “accumulating credits in a timely manner.”

“I think of them as only one indicator of how well a school is serving a student,” she told Chalkbeat. “True improvement is going to be reflective in multiple indicators.”

Nonetheless, the district’s rising graduation trends reflect a similar upward trajectory for state and national graduation rates. The rate is calculated by dividing the number of students who graduate after four years by the total number in a high school cohort.

Tennessee is ahead of the pack in figuring out how to get more students to stay in and complete high school, said Jennifer DePaoli, the lead author on a recent national report analyzing federal graduation rate data.

“Tennessee is a state that we would say has really proven itself when it comes to raising student graduation rates,” she told Chalkbeat, adding it “still has some room to grow.”

In 2013, Tennessee was applauded in a national graduation report for outpacing the national average in nearly every category, including students from low-income families and students with disabilities. But in DePaoli’s report released last week, Tennessee’s growth in graduating its students has slowed, and has the 8th highest percentage of black students who didn’t graduate on time. The state’s graduation rate for students from poor families still ranks among the highest in the nation, however.

Before 2013, most students in the former suburban district, commonly referred to as legacy Shelby County Schools, consistently exceeded the state and national average with as many as 96 percent of students graduating on time. The number of students graduating from Memphis City Schools, which dissolved in 2013 after city school board members voted to consolidate with the county district, lagged behind the national and state average, hovering between 62 and 72 percent.

Legacy Shelby County Schools and Memphis City Schools graduation rate compared to U.S. (2008-2012)

Source: Tennessee Department of Education; Graphic by Sam Park

Since then, more students have graduated from high school. After the merger in 2013, the county split again into seven school systems.

One of Shelby County Schools’ goals is to have 90 percent of students graduating on time by 2025. The district, which is the largest in Tennessee, now sits at 79.6 percent for the class of 2017. Official numbers for the class of 2018 are expected to be released this fall.

Shelby County Schools, municipal districts, and the Achievement School District compared to U.S. (2013-2017)

Source: Tennessee Department of Education; Graphic by Sam Park

In the middle of all that, Tennessee raised the bar for students to graduate. The state had been stung in 2007 by a national report saying the existing state standards were weak and misled parents about how their students ranked against their peers nationwide. So, Tennessee started phasing in new graduation requirements in 2009 that increased the number of credits needed to graduate and introduced the current end-of-course exams.

Also, the state changed how schools and teachers are evaluated. In 2009, Memphis City Schools got a $90 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to overhaul how the district recruits, trains, and evaluates its teacher workforce.

In 2010, the Tennessee Department of Education got a $500 million federal grant to recreate how it measures school success and partially tie teacher evaluation scores to student test results.

The state-run Achievement School District was born from that grant and started taking over low-performing schools in 2012. (The district didn’t have graduating seniors at high schools until 2014.)

In recent years, Shelby County Schools began to use data to help target students who might be at risk of dropping out. That kind of early warning system is part of a growing national effort to use mounds of student data to remove barriers to graduating, such as getting help with schoolwork, or pointing families to community resources to reduce absences early in a student’s high school career.

The district has also added reading specialists for ninth grade students who are behind and night and online classes for high school students so they wouldn’t have to wait until summer to retake failed courses. And before a student fails a class, district leaders have increased the number of offerings during the semester for a student to recover their grade.

In Memphis-area schools, 11 of the 48 in the region have fewer students graduating now than they did in 2008. Four of them dropped more than 5 percentage points:

  • Wooddale High School
  • Raleigh Egypt High School
  • Bolton High School
  • Ridgeway High School

Though there are 13 schools that have seen significant growth in the number of students who have graduated since 2008, they haven’t kept up with the district’s average ACT score, a common indicator of a student’s readiness for college.

But graduation rates and the ACT don’t actually measure the same things, said DePaoli.

“A lot of people would like to argue if graduation rates go up, we should be seeing gains in ACT scores and things like that,” she said. “We would like to see those things track together, but I don’t think there’s enough alignment there.”

Still, she said, “if kids aren’t getting higher scores on the ACT but the graduation rate is increasing, there is something to be really fearful of.”

Five Memphis area schools have now exceeded the district average for students graduating. Here are the 13 with the most growth:

  • B. T. Washington High School*
  • Oakhaven High School*
  • Martin Luther King College Preparatory High School (formerly Frayser High School)**
  • Hamilton High School
  • Sheffield High School
  • Westwood High School
  • Kingsbury High School
  • Manassas High School
  • East High School*
  • Craigmont High School*
  • Fairley High School**
  • Mitchell High School
  • Whitehaven High School*

*Schools that now exceeds Shelby County Schools’ graduation rate
** Taken over by the Achievement School District in 2014

Below you can look at your high school’s graduation rates over the years.