testing testing

Opt-out leaders to New York: Your testing changes don’t appease us

PHOTO: Justin Weiner

The parents who organized a record-breaking boycott of state tests last year say the commissioner’s latest effort to alter state tests is not nearly enough.

In response to widespread criticism of state assessments, Commissioner MaryEllen Elia last week announced several changes to the state’s testing program. Those changes include giving more educators a role in drafting tests and reducing test pressure and length— key goals of the “opt-out” movement — by reducing the number of questions and letting students take as long as they need to finish.

But opt-out leaders said what appears to be a major policy shift is really a set of minor tweaks designed to appease parents without addressing the concerns that caused 20 percent of them to have their children sit out last year’s exams. Without further changes, opt-out leaders say they will continue to convince parents across the state not to let their children take the tests.

“It’s the non-change changes,” said Lisa Rudley, a founding member of the New York State Allies for Public Education, about the testing concessions Elia made last week. Elia “is still talking about it as if the tests are all good and it’s really a communication problem,” Rudley said.

The commissioner’s policies are based on conversations with thousands of New Yorkers and consistent with the recommendations in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Common Core task force report, according to state education department officials. They said it would be a mistake to move more quickly.

“These are just some of the steps the Regents and the commissioner are taking to ensure our students receive the education they’re entitled to,” said Jonathan Burman, a spokesman for the state education department. “This is critically important work and we will take the necessary time to make sure we listen and get it right.”

Opt-out leaders said each of the changes Elia announced last week falls short of what’s needed.

Giving students unlimited time runs counter to opt-out’s goal of reducing the duration of tests, Brooklyn teacher Jessica Klonsky said on Facebook in response to a Chalkbeat story about the changes.

“This is a pretty useless response to the opt-out movement,” Klonsky wrote. “People were not opting their children out of the tests because they didn’t have enough time to take them. They opted out because the tests and their preparation take up too much time as it is. Now they are going to take up more time!”

Unlimited time on tests could make for a logistical nightmare, said Michael Reilly, the president of Community Education Council 31 in Staten Island who has advertised his own decision to opt his children out of state tests and has applied for the open at-large seat on the Board of Regents. If some students are still working while others are finished, teachers will have to oversee both groups of students and find a quiet place for students still taking the test, he said.

Eliminating a few test questions is a small dent in a system that forces elementary school students to take six full days of exams, Rudley said. Instead, she said she would like to see only one day of testing for each subject with about 45 minutes for each test.

And Reilly noted that while educator involvement is a good thing, the state’s guidance is not specific about how many teachers will work to revamp each test.

“I think she’s trying to put a bandaid on the issues that parents and educators have raised,” Reilly said. “This is one attempt to appease parents. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s well thought out.”

The movement is finding an ally in the state teachers union, which is also pressing Elia to move more quickly in overhauling the state’s testing program. In a letter sent Friday, NYSUT urged Elia to reduce the number of days dedicated to testing and push the tests later in the school year.

“The department should not pass up this opportunity to make meaningful change in the testing system and restore the confidence of teachers, parents, and students,” reads the letter, signed by NYSUT Vice President Catalina Fortino.

Not everyone is a harsh critic of Elia’s policies. Many defended her testing changes as the first steps towards broader reform.

Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, said most superintendents believe Elia’s announcement is a “good faith effort” to change broken testing practices and that moving any faster would be dangerous.

“We got into all these things over a period of years, in part, by rushing into things,” Lowry said about the current state tests, “so let’s not make the same mistake in trying to repair the damage caused by our earlier mistakes.”

Jay Worona, the deputy executive director and general counsel for the New York State School Boards Association, said both the commissioner’s defense and the opt-out leaders’ reactions are understandable.

“The commissioner is saying, ‘Please work with me. Don’t assume that the status quo is going to be preserved forever,’” Worona said. On the other hand, the opt-leaders and supporters are thinking, “If we don’t keep this pressure on, we don’t really believe that these changes are going to occur,” he said.

Indeed, opt-out leaders have pledged to keep fighting until state tests meet their standards.

“Parents will not be opting back in until the tests are appropriate,” Rudley said. “Parents will still continue to opt out.”

Class of 2018

Some Colorado schools see big gains in grad rates. Find yours in our searchable database.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Aurora Public Schools
Aurora West College Preparatory Academy graduates of 2018. The school had a 100 percent graduation rate.

Two metro-area school districts, Westminster and Aurora, recently in the state’s crosshairs for their low-performance, posted significant increases in their graduation rates, according to 2018 numbers released Wednesday.

Westminster, a district that got off the state’s watchlist just last year, had 67.9 percent of its students graduate on time, within four years of starting high school. That was a jump of 10 percentage points from its 57.8 percent graduation rate in 2017.

District officials credit their unique model of competency-based education, which does away with grade levels and requires students prove they mastered content before moving up a level. In previous years, district officials pointed to rising graduation rates that Colorado also tracks for students who take five, six or seven years, but officials say it was bound to impact their 4-year rates as well.

“We saw an upward tick across the board this past year,” said Westminster Superintendent Pam Swanson, referring to state test results and other data also showing achievement increasing. “I think this is one more indicator.”

Swanson said the high school has also focused recently on increasing attendance, now at almost 90 percent, and increasing students’ responsibility for their own learning.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

In Aurora schools, 76.5 percent of students graduated on time in 2018 — a jump of almost 9 percentage points from the 67.6 percent rate of the class of 2017.

“We’re excited these rates demonstrate momentum in our work,” Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn said.

He attributed the increased graduation rates to “better practice, better pedagogy, and better policy.”

One policy that made a difference for the district is a change in law that now allows districts to count students as graduates the year they complete their high school requirements, even if they are enrolled in one of Colorado’s programs to take college courses while doing a fifth year of high school.

According to a state report two years ago, Aurora had 65 students enrolled in this specific concurrent enrollment program who previously wouldn’t have been counted in four-year graduation rates. Only the Denver district has a larger number of such students. Aurora officials said 147 students are enrolled this year in the program.

Those students are successful, Munn said, and shouldn’t be counted against the district’s on-time graduation rates.

Aurora’s previously rising graduation rates helped it dodge corrective state action. But its improvement this year included a first: One high school, Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, had 100 percent of its seniors graduate in 2018.

The school enrolls students in grades six through 12 in northwest Aurora, the most diverse part of the district. Of the more than 1,000 students, 89 percent qualify for subsidized lunch, a measure of poverty.

“This incredible accomplishment demonstrates the strong student-focused culture we have created at Aurora West,” said Principal Taya Tselolikhina in a written statement. “When you establish high expectations and follow up with high levels of support, every student is able to shape a successful future.”

Statewide, the four-year graduation rate once again inched higher, and gaps between the graduation rate of white students and students of color again decreased. But this time, the gaps narrowed even as all student groups increased their graduation rates.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

The rising trend wasn’t universal. In some metro area school districts, graduation rates fell in 2018. That includes Adams 14, the district that is now facing outside management after years of low performance.

The tiny school district of Sheridan, just southwest of Denver, saw a significant drop in graduation rates. In 2018, 64.7 percent of students graduated within four years, down from 72.7 percent of the class of 2017.

Look up four-year graduation rates for your individual school or district in our databases below.

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School accountability

Concerned with state A-F grading system, Vitti says he’ll lobby for Detroit to keep its own plan

Detroit school district leaders will lobby state leaders to allow for a Detroit-only letter grading system to hold district and charter schools in the city accountable. But if that isn’t successful, the district plans to create its own system.

This plan, announced Tuesday night by Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, comes almost a month after lame-duck lawmakers in the Michigan Legislature passed a controversial A-F letter grading system for the whole state. A Detroit-only system would gives schools far more credit for improvement in test scores than the statewide system does, and it would account for an issue — poverty — that disproportionately affects city schools. 

That state system, which former Gov. Rick Snyder signed into law in late December, halted efforts that had already been underway by district and charter leaders to create an A-F system that takes the specific issues facing Detroit schools into account. That local system had been mandated by a 2016 law and only applied to the city.

Vitti’s announcement comes as state education officials from the Michigan Department of Education have raised concerns that the A-F system OK’d by lawmakers violates federal education law and could potentially cost the state federal money.

Vitti laid out a plan to first lobby new state leaders, including Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Republican leaders of the House and Senate, to allow for local grade systems.

If successful, Vitti said, that system that had been in the works would be adopted for district and charter schools.

If unsuccessful, Vitti said, the district would go it alone, without charter schools.

“We need to start thinking about our own approach to school accountability,” Vitti said.

The Community Education Commission created the letter grading system and worked for months with district and charter leaders to design a plan that would be specific to Detroit schools. The topic didn’t come up at a commission meeting Monday night until a member of the public urged the commission to move ahead with the local system and one member of the commission agreed. A commission official earlier in the day said they were still exploring how to move forward in light of the statewide system.

The city’s plan was for schools to be rewarded heavily for the amount of improvement seen in test scores. That’s important in a high-poverty community like Detroit, where most of the schools are struggling. City schools also struggle with enrollment instability.

Vitti said the statewide system “doesn’t provide much clarity on individual school performance,” because it will issue a handful of letter grades. Those letter grades will be based on the number of students proficient in reading and math on state exams, the number of students who show an adequate amount of improvement in reading and math on state exams, the number of students still learning English who show improvement in learning the language, graduation rates for high schools, and the overall academic performance of a school and how it compares to other schools in the state with similar demographics.

The Detroit system would issue a single letter grade. Vitti said a system that issues as many grades as the state system would make it “hard to distinguish one school from another.”

Board President Iris Taylor said she would support such a plan by the district, saying “it’s critical if we’re going to achieve the objectives we have laid out in the strategic plan.”

Board member Sonya Mays said one of the advantages of a statewide system is that it allows “parents to better evaluate from school to school, across districts.”

She said it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that the future of the district is to draw back 32,000 students who live in Detroit but opt to go to schools outside the city.