waive goodbye

Tisch: I’d ‘think twice’ before opting into state testing if I had a special-needs child

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch with then-State Education Commissioner John King in 2014. Tisch said she would "think twice" about opting into the state tests if she were a parent with a student with special needs.

New York’s top education official, who sharply criticized parents who might keep their children from taking state tests a few months ago, offered a different message for parents of some students with special needs on Monday.

“Personally, I would say that if I was the mother of a student with a certain type of disability, I would think twice before I allowed my child to sit through an exam that was incomprehensible to them,” Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said in Albany.

Tisch’s remarks came after federal education officials rejected New York’s request to loosen testing requirements for some high-needs students in June. The waiver would have exempted English language learners who have attended U.S. schools for less than two years from taking the tests, and assessed students with severe disabilities based on their instructional level, rather than their age-based grade.

Tisch has never disagreed with critics who say testing requirements for certain high-needs students are unfair, though she also hadn’t before suggested that opting students out was the right response. The solution, she said, would come through the state’s test-exemption request.

But the Obama administration’s denial means state education officials won’t be able to ease testing anxiety for those students and parents as they thought they might be able to. It also represents a roadblock in their efforts to reduce the general opposition to state tests that has steadily grown over the last few years.

Anti-testing advocates have estimated that upwards of 200,000 New York students, or roughly 20 percent of test-takers, did not take the state English and math exams this year — more than double the number who opted out in 2014. (That share is considerably smaller in New York City.) Their parents say it is a form of activism against policies that has led to a narrowing of the focus of teaching and an overemphasis on tests.

Seeking to discourage more parents from joining in, Tisch said in March that parents who opted out of the 2015 tests were making a “terrible mistake because it eliminates important information about how our kids are doing.”

In the months since, the state has appointed a new education commissioner, MaryEllen Elia, and ended its main contract with Pearson, the test-maker that had become a target of the opt-out movement. Elia also announced on Monday that she was planning a full review of the state’s adoption of the Common Core learning standards and its testing policies (a move also required by law).

The U.S. Department of Education did approve many of New York’s requests for flexibility from the No Child Left Behind Act, which required states to annually test students in grades three through eight in math and English. The state is now making small changes to how it identifies struggling schools as a result, and will require more intensive intervention for schools that are re-identified as low-performing based on academic and achievement data from the last school year.

But its request to exempt certain high-need students from some testing requirements was denied. Assistant Secretary of Education Deborah Delisle wrote that the current testing requirements were necessary to ensure that academic progress of all students is properly tracked.

The federal education department did grant a waiver to Florida that would have allowed the test scores of certain high-need students to be withheld from the state’s school-accountability calculations. New York’s request would have actually exempted some students from the tests altogether.

For now, state officials say they have few options to reduce testing for those students.

Both houses of Congress are moving to change federal education law. The law was overhauled in 2002 by George W. Bush, and its standardized testing requirements and their stringent use for accountability purposes are among its least popular provisions. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives and Democrat-controlled Senate have advanced different versions of the law, which must ultimately get approval from President Obama.

Ira Schwartz, New York’s deputy education commissioner, said that neither version includes specific flexibility for high-needs students that they have been seeking.

Regent Roger Tilles asked if a lawsuit was possible, but state education officials said a similar, unsuccessful case in Connecticut meant that the chances of winning were grim. Tilles then said officials “should figure out a way to lodge a protest.”

“We thought that there were ways indicating that students were not up to their grade level without making them take a test that everybody knows they’re going to fail,” said Tilles.

“This would be the appropriate time to lodge that,” Schwartz responded.

newark notes

In Newark, a study about school changes rings true — and raises questions — for people who lived them

PHOTO: Naomi Nix
Park Elementary principal Sylvia Esteves.

A few years ago, Park Elementary School Principal Sylvia Esteves found herself fielding questions from angst-ridden parents and teachers.

Park was expecting an influx of new students because Newark’s new enrollment system allowed parents to choose a K-8 school for their child outside of their neighborhood. That enrollment overhaul was one of many reforms education leaders have made to Newark Public Schools since 2011 in an effort to expand school choice and raise student achievement.

“What’s it going to mean for overcrowding? Will our classes get so large that we won’t have the kind of success for our students that we want to have?” Esteves recalls educators and families asking.

Park’s enrollment did grow, by about 200 students, and class sizes swelled along with it, Esteves said. But for the last two years, the share of students passing state math and English tests has risen, too.

Esteves was one of several Newark principals, teachers, and parents who told Chalkbeat they are not surprised about the results of a recent study that found test scores dropped sharply in the years immediately following the changes but then bounced back. By 2016, it found Newark students were making greater gains on English tests than they were in 2011.

Funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and conducted by Harvard researchers, the study also found the reforms had no impact on student math scores.

And while many Newark families and school leaders agree with the study’s conclusion — that students are making more progress now — they had very different ideas about what may have caused the initial declines, and why English growth was more obvious than math.

Supported by $200 million in private philanthropy, former superintendent Cami Anderson and other New Jersey officials in 2011 sought to make significant changes to the education landscape in Newark, where one third of more than 50,000 students attend privately managed charter schools. Their headline-grabbing reforms included a new teachers union contract with merit-based bonuses; the universal enrollment system; closing some schools; expanding charter schools; hiring new principals; requiring some teachers to reapply for their jobs; and lengthening the day at some struggling schools.

Brad Haggerty, the district’s chief academic officer, said the initial drop in student performance coincided with the district’s introduction of a host of changes: new training materials, evaluations, and curricula aligned to the Common Core standards but not yet assessed by the state’s annual test. That was initially a lot for educators to handle at once, he said, but teacher have adjusted to the changes and new standards.

“Over time our teaching cadre, our faculty across the entire district got stronger,” said Haggerty, who arrived as a special assistant to the superintendent in 2011.

But some in Newark think the district’s changes have had longer-lasting negative consequences.

“We’ve had a lot of casualties. We lost great administrators, teachers,” said Bashir Akinyele, a Weequahic High School history teacher. “There have been some improvements but there were so many costs.”

Those costs included the loss of veteran teachers who were driven out by officials’ attempts to change teacher evaluations and make changes to schools’ personnel at the same time, according to Sheila Montague, a former school board candidate who spent two decades teaching in Newark Public Schools before losing her position during the changes.

“You started to see experienced, veteran teachers disappearing,” said Montague, who left the school system after being placed in the district’s pool of educators without a job in a school. “In many instances, there were substitute teachers in the room. Of course, the delivery of instruction wasn’t going to even be comparable.”

The district said it retains about 95 percent of its highly-rated teachers.

As for why the study found that Newark’s schools were seeing more success improving English skills than math, it’s a pattern that Esteves, the Park Elementary principal, says she saw firsthand.

While the share of students who passed the state English exam at Park rose 13 percentage points between the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 school years, the share of students who were proficient in math only rose 3 percentage points in that time frame.

“[Math is] where we felt we were creeping up every year, but not having a really strong year,” she said. “I felt like there was something missing in what we were doing that could really propel the children forward.”

To improve Park students’ math skills, Esteves asked teachers to assign “math exemplars,” twice-a-month assignments that probed students’ understanding of concepts. Last year, Park’s passing rate on the state math test jumped 12 percentage points, to 48 percent.

While Newark students have made progress, families and school leaders said they want to the district to make even more gains.

Test scores in Newark “have improved, but they are still not where they are supposed to be,” said Demetrisha Barnes, whose niece attends KIPP Seek Academy. “Are they on grade level? No.”

Chalkbeat is expanding to Newark, and we’re looking for a reporter to lead our efforts there. Think it should be you? Apply here.  

Who Is In Charge

Indianapolis Public Schools board gives superintendent Ferebee raise, bonus

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee is getting a $4,701 raise and a bonus of $28,000.

The board voted unanimously to approve both. The raise is a 2.24 percent salary increase. It is retroactive to July 1, 2017. Ferebee’s total pay this year, including the bonus, retirement contributions and a stipend for a car, will be $286,769. Even though the bonus was paid this year, it is based on his performance last school year.

The board approved a new contract Tuesday that includes a raise for teachers.

The bonus is 80 percent of the total — $35,000 — he could have received under his contract. It is based on goals agreed to by the superintendent and the board.

These are performance criteria used to determine the superintendent’s bonus are below: