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.”


This Wayne Township school made big gains on ISTEP, and its principal said teachers sticking around was key.

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students at Robey Elementary School in Wayne Township participate in an English lesson.

As the kindergartners at Robey Elementary School shuffled down the hallway in a single-file line, the wings on their festive construction paper bat headbands flapped softly.

When Principal Ben Markley walked by, the kindergartners jostled to greet him, one after another giving a tiny wave by bending their index fingers up and down. Bat wings flapped furiously.

“Are we working hard today?” Markley asked as he approached, returning what he dubbed the “kindergarten wave” by waggling his own index finger.

“Yes!” the kids chorused back excitedly.

Markley continued down the hallway, explaining that he created the wave to give some of the school’s youngest students a special way to connect with him — a better option than running up and gluing themselves to his legs, he said.

He is now in his fifth year at Robey, a school with more than 750 students located in the northwest corner of Wayne Township. In fact, Markley has spent his entire career as an educator in Wayne Township. And he’s not alone: Of the 20 Robey teachers who taught grades that took ISTEP last year, 19 stayed on from the year before.

Markley says that retaining teachers and staff has afforded students immense benefits — not the least of which that the school made some of the largest gains of any township school on last year’s ISTEP test.

Chalkbeat sat down with Markley recently to talk about the school’s progress. Below are excerpts from the conversation, edited for clarity and brevity.

Your passing rate for English and math went up about 8 percentage points from last year, and your letter grade went up from a B to an A. What was your reaction when you learned that?

Two years ago we were pretty disappointed with some of our scores. We saw some areas in math that we thought we should be addressing a little differently — the way our teachers were thinking about curriculum and really the depth and the rigor that we were presenting to our students.

There was this pretty big gap between what we were asking our kids to do and what was on the state assessment. We talked a lot about that last year. We spent a lot of our professional development time thinking about what are the deeper thinking skills that students need, especially in math. We sometimes called it how do we get kids to grapple with problems. How do we get them to show perseverance and dedication and be able to learn from mistakes — to make a mistake and accept that mistake and say, how do we grow from this?

We haven’t had the teacher turnover that some schools have had. And so (teachers within every grade) are becoming content and curricular experts. When you put smart people in the room together talking about how they teach something, they are able to share lots of great ideas.

To see that pan out in improved performance — that’s what you’re so excited about. That’s why you put all that effort and time and energy and debating and conversation in, because then our hard work paid off, and that’s rewarding for teachers.

What is your school community like?

We are about 52 to 53 percent free and reduced lunch this year. We’re about 50 percent white, about 35 to 40 percent African American and about 10 percent Hispanic.

It feels almost neighborhood- or community-like being back here. I think families know that they can come here and they can partner with staff members to try to find the best ways to help their children. We serve rural families and out-of-district families who choose to come to Robey, and we take pride in that fact.

What is your approach to leadership?

I think we have very talented, dedicated, smart people, and so I feel like my job is to get them the resources that they need. I trust the decisions that teachers make. So I want them to feel empowered to make those decisions and suggest those changes and improvements that help us move forward as a school.

I talked about staff continuity already. I think that is something I maybe even initially underestimated how important it was. It fosters a sense of collegiality. They know they’ve got each others’ backs.

It also just gives them time to wrap their minds around our curriculum. The first time you teach it, that’s a big undertaking. It’s overwhelming. And so to have consistency (with our teaching staff) from year to year … was critical to our success.

Struggling Detroit schools

The list of promises is long: Arts, music, robotics, gifted programs and more. Will Detroit schools be able to deliver?

PHOTO: Detroit Public Television
Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti answers questions at a community meeting in Detroit.

Arts. Music. Robotics. Programs for gifted kids. New computers. New textbooks. Dual enrollment programs that let high school students take college classes. International Baccalaureate. Advanced Placement.

They’re all on the list of things that Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told a group of community members assembled in a Brightmoor neighborhood church that he would introduce or expand as soon as next school year.

Vitti didn’t get into the specifics of how the main Detroit district would find the money or partnerships needed to deliver on all of those promises, but they’re part of the plan for the future, he said.

The comments came in a question and answer session last month with students, parents and community members following Vitti’s appearance on Detroit Public Television’s American Black Journal/One Detroit Roadshow. The discussion was recorded at City Covenant Church. DPTV is one of Chalkbeat’s partners in the Detroit Journalism Cooperative.

Vitti has been appearing at community events since taking over the Detroit schools last spring. He is scheduled next week to join officials from two of the city’s major charter school authorizers, Central Michigan University and Grand Valley State University, at a State of the Schools address on October 25.


Watch the full Q&A with Vitti below.