NYSED Botched the Common Core Standards Revision. Again.

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On May 2nd, Commissioner MaryEllen Elia announced that NYSED’s final revisions to the Common Core standards will be submitted to the Board of Regents on May 9th and that NYSED will be accepting public comment until June 2nd.

When the draft revised standards were released in September of 2016, parents and teachers noted that despite the Commissioner’s false claims of substantive change,the majority of changes consisted of minor tweaks to verbiage and placement. There were very few content changes and the Common Core anchor standards remained largely intact. You can read an analysis of the draft revised standards by the New Paltz Board of Education here. The Commissioner’s mischaracterization of these draft revisions further eroded the trust of parents and educators in the NYS Education Department’s willingness to seriously consider the concerns of the public.

Once again, Commissioner Elia has missed an opportunity to deliver developmentally appropriate learning standards that align with educational research. The final revised standards include some changes to the original draft revisions. However, these changes appear to be largely language simplifications which, in many cases, render the standard more confusing and vague. In other cases, the final revisions contradict the committee’s original content changes that were made out of concern for developmental appropriateness and the final revised standards actually increase the “rigor” and difficulty level of the standards.

Take, for example, CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RF.K.2.c:

“Blend and segment onsets and rimes of single-syllable spoken words”

The draft revised standards released in September recommended no change to this standard. However, in the final revised standards, RF.2.C is revised to read as follows:

“Count, blend, and segment individual sounds (phonemes) in spoken one syllable words”

This is a much more difficult skill that the Common Core actually places in 1st grade (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RF.1.2.d). This also contradicts the committee’s previous justification for changes to CCLS RF.K.2.d which stated that “isolating the medial sound is an inappropriate skill for kindergarten.” In order to isolate the medial sound, a student must be able to segment ALL of the individual sounds in a CVC word as a prerequisite to identifying the medial sound.

Many of the changes in the final revised standards are inexplicable. Consider CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RF.K.2.d:

“Isolate and pronounce the initial, medial vowel, and final sounds in three-phoneme words”

In the draft revised standards this standard was changed to indicate that kindergarten students should only be expected to isolate and pronounce the initial and final sounds in CVC words. The committee justified this rare content change by stating that “Isolating the medial sounds is not an appropriate kindergarten skill.” However, in the final revised standards, the committee replaced the draft revised standard with a poorly worded version of CCLS RF.K.2.E:

“Create new words by manipulating the phonemes orally in one syllable words”

This is odd considering that in September, the very same committee had moved this standard to first grade, commenting that they “felt this complex standard was more appropriate for this grade (1st grade) level.” Even more inexplicable is the fact that this same standard is also included in the first grade final revised standards not once, but twice (redundancy is not uncommon in the final revised standards).

It should also be noted that isolating and identifying beginning and final sounds in CVC words is an important foundational literacy skill. Rather than revising the original kindergarten Common Core standard as was earlier suggested in the draft standard revisions, this kindergarten standard has been scrapped altogether and replaced with a first grade standard that just months ago was deemed developmentally inappropriate.

Almost all of the primary grade standards remove the words “with guidance and support,” significantly increasing the expectations for the standard. The standard specifically cited by Governor Cuomo’s Common Core Task Force Report as being of concern to early childhood experts due the developmentally inappropriate expectation that all kindergarteners “read emergent texts with purpose and understanding” remains unchanged.

Most concerning is the guidance provided for grade level reading benchmarks and text complexity. According to the guidance provided in the standards, kindergarten and first grade students should read books “that specifically correlate to their reading level and word knowledge” during instruction. However, these words do not appear in the guidance for subsequent grades. In grade 2, the only guidance given is that by the end of the year students should read books at or above grade level. In other words, after first grade children are no longer given the benefit of a developmental learning curve and will continue to be held to standardized, one-size-fits-all expectations.

The third grade draft standard indicating that students should be able to choose books of interest to them and read independently for pleasure was scrapped and, across the elementary standards, terms such as diversity, mythology, and poetry, have largely been deleted. The standards smell even more like test prep than they did before.

It feels as if some standards were revised simply for the sake of revision when in reality, the original Common Core standard was actually superior or least made sense. The final revised standards are reminiscent of replacing Lucky Charms with Marshmallow Mateys, or replacing Dr.Pepper with Dr.Bob….it’s the same unhealthy product, only sub-standard and slightly worse for you.

While I applaud the intention of the educators who took the time to take part in the standards revision process, their efforts were clearly constrained and are being used to justify yet another botched revision. The standards revision process has been an enormous waste of time and energy due to Commissioner Elia’s refusal to move away from the Common Core and to allow educators and parents to reimagine New York Standards that are developmentally appropriate and research based. They feel rushed, haphazard, and out of touch with what many parents and educators believe our children need. You can read more of my ongoing notes on some of the final revised ELA standards, here.

Beware the Innovative Assessment Kool-Aid

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By law, teacher evaluations in New York State are required to include student growth scores based on the results of NYS ELA and math tests in grades 3-8. The current NYSUT leadership has failed to lobby for changes to this law and after an outpouring of criticism,  NYSUT Vice President Andy Pallotta recently stated in an email blast that NYSUT “will fight to have APPR thrown on the ash-heap of history.” The current NYSUT leaders running for re-election (including Pallotta) also claim that their “…goal is to permanently decouple all testing from teacher evaluation ratings.

We must be clear in our advocacy – New York State law must be amended to completely decouple the mandatory use any student performance measures from teacher evaluations and from any and all uses that result in punishing schools or school districts. New York State law currently requires that teacher evaluations include the use of a “student performance measure” in the form of student growth scores derived from a value-added model.  While our current performance measures consist of flawed state tests, the law does leave open the possibility of using other, more authentic and innovative types of assessment. So to be clear, decoupling test scores from APPR does not necessarily mean eliminating the use of student assessments and growth scores in teacher evaluations. And this raises the question, when NYSUT leaders voice their support of decoupling test scores from teacher evaluations, does this apply to ALL student performance measures?

As educators and parents know, when high stakes are tied to ANY assessment, no matter how authentic the assessment, the nature of teaching and learning is ultimately corrupted as the goal of instruction becomes tied to “the test” and in the case of a portfolio or project based assessment, the rubric. We also know that the current misuse of assessment data discourages strong teachers from working with the neediest students and has discouraged many from entering the education profession altogether.

Despite the fact that New York State law continues to support the misuse of assessment data, there has been a recent push by some education leaders for New York to adopt the use of “innovative assessments” in our accountability system. In fact, in recent weeks NYSUT leaders have been speaking with local presidents and citing the portfolio assessments used by New York City’s Consortium Schools as an example of how these types of assessments can be successfully implemented. What they fail to point out is the fact NYC Consortium Schools are subject to an accountability waiver. Once subjected to the requirements of New York State law and federal accountability mandates, the assessments used by the Consortium Schools would be unrecognizable.

In order to adopt these innovative assessments, New York will likely have to apply for the Innovative Assessment Pilot allowed under the Every Student Success Act (ESSA). Under ESSA, the pilot would allow up to seven states or consortia of states to pilot “innovative” assessments (including portfolio assessments, project based assessments, and computer adaptive testing) in lieu of the state tests for up to five years. A state would begin by implementing the new assessment in a subset of districts and within five years, implement state wide. While it is unclear if the Regents will support such an application, NYSUT leadership recently expressed its support of ESSA’s Innovative Assessment Pilot to the State Education Department.

ESSA states that under the Pilot, the innovative assessment must “generate results that are valid, reliable and comparable for all students and each subgroup as compared to the results for statewide assessments given to other students.” In other words, ESSA  requires comparability for accountability. For the five years allotted to achieve state-wide implementation of the new assessment model, old state tests must be given in at least one grade each in elementary, middle, and high school. New assessment results must be compared to the old state tests and all must be based on the same state standards and benchmarks, which in NYS are still extremely problematic. By applying for the Innovative Assessment Pilot, we would essentially ensure that changes to the standards and benchmarks cannot take place for another five years.

Organizations like Fairtest believe that there is potentially great benefit in the Innovative Assessment Pilot program and have written extensively about this initiative here. However, Fairtest does acknowledge the potential pitfalls of the pilot program, pitfalls that many New York educators believe would be exacerbated by the current New York State law. In order to determine comparability, innovative assessments have to be re-scored by calibrated teachers and all must be scored against state standards and benchmarks. Re-scoring requires standardized statewide rubrics. Fairtest warns “State scoring guides could enforce back-door standardization, as tests that require writing in response to a prompt often do.” Fairtest also warns, “Teachers may confront the problem of serving two masters: the old tests and new performance assessments. They could face pressure to establish consistency between classroom evidence and the tests.” In other words, teachers would continue to feel pressure to teach to the tests.

Even more disturbing, implementing high stakes assessments under the guise of “innovation” plays right into the hands of privatization efforts such as the Global Education Reform Movement  (GERM) and would open the door to digital, personalized learning platforms that will eventually diminish the need for highly qualified teachers. Recent ALEC legislation illustrates the potential misuse of these assessments for the DeVos style reforms that New Yorkers are currently fighting against. If our union supports these types of assessments, will they continue to pledge support of the opt out movement? Not likely.

It should be noted that any innovative assessments such as portfolio assessments would be subject to State definition. Considering what we know of NYSED and their desire to forgo innovation in favor of efficiency and easily gathered data points, the lack of resources and money devoted to this, the punitive education law in New York State, and the current lack of strong union leadership, it would be a mistake for New York to apply for the Innovative Assessment Pilot. The Pilot would preclude changes to the current flawed standards and career and college ready benchmarks. Additionally, these innovative assessments would be subject to the same standardization that is currently plaguing our schools. They would continue the narrowing of the curriculum while doing nothing to address the mandated use of junk science to rank, sort, and punish both educators and schools and ultimately, would stymy efforts to create real change.

While authentic assessment is always the goal, parents and teachers must not allow education leaders to put the cart before the horse. We must insist that New York State get its house in order before applying for an Innovative Assessment Pilot. This includes a repeal of the mandated use of student performance measures in teacher evaluations and in the identification of schools for Receivership as well as implementing substantial changes to the New York State learning standards and benchmarks for proficiency. When it comes to safeguarding public education, the last think New York’s students and teachers need is another bait and switch.

Mean What You Say and Say What You Mean

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The Education Transformation Act passed in 2015 requires that teachers be evaluated by student growth scores in conjunction with classroom observations. In order to decouple test scores from the teacher evaluation plan (referred to here as APPR or 3012-d), the law must be changed. While we are currently under a moratorium on the use of state test scores in evaluations, once the moratorium ends teachers MUST be evaluated using student growth scores derived from volatile value-added modeling (VAM). Again, this cannot be changed without a change to the law.

On March 6th and 7th, teachers will descend on Albany as part of Committee of 100, NYSUT’s annual lobbying event. Teachers will visit with lawmakers and share stories from the frontline in an effort to lobby legislators to support important initiatives and enact critical changes that will benefit NYSUT members and their professions.

Every year NYSUT leadership distributes lobbying materials to be distributed to lawmakers and used as talking points by members. Notably absent from the 2016 talking points were any suggestions that teachers urge lawmakers to decouple test scores from teacher evaluations. This year, many hoped that NYSUT leaders would take a stronger stand against the test based teacher evaluation system, especially as the incumbent NYSUT leaders running for re-election are currently campaigning on their commitment to “fight to completely eliminate ties between testing and APPR, permanently decoupling all testing from teacher evaluation ratings.” See The Unity Slate’s position on APPR/3012d:

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Given the circumstances, it was surprising to see that not only is NYSUT’s legislative leadership once again failing to mobilize teachers to fight the current test and punish system, they did not even bother to write new talking points. Instead they recycle last year’s weak APPR lobbying point:

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In their 2017 lobbying materials for Committee of 100 NYSUT leadership urges the legislature to:

Enact any and all necessary statutory changes to New York’s laws (Ed.Law, Section 3012-d)….once the work by the Regents….is completed.

Exactly what work are they referring to?

At no time has the Board of Regents been charged with making or suggesting changes to 3012-d. A search of the minutes from every Board of Regents meeting over the past six months confirms that the Board of Regents is not engaged in any efforts to recommend statutory changes to 3012-d. In order to confirm and triple check this I contacted the Board of Regents directly.

They continue:

These statutory changes should conform with the 21 recommendations made by the Common Core Task Force.

Given the context of this statement and the heading it falls under, it would seem that NYSUT is implying that there is something in the 21 Task Force recommendations that addresses the misuse of test scores in teacher evaluations. This is not the case. The recommendation of the Task Force pertaining to teacher evaluations only suggests a temporary moratorium while new standards are rolled out and makes absolutely no mention of decoupling or even revising the way in which test scores are misused.

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https://www.regents.nysed.gov/common/regents/files/Summary%20of%20New%20York%20Common%20Core%20Task%20Force%20Final%20Report_0.pdf

NYSUT leadership also refers to “groundbreaking changes in federal law” that will “delink federal funding from student test scores” and pave the way for “permanent remedies” to our broken system.

This is a reference to the Every Child Succeeds Act (ESSA) and the work of NYSED and the Board of Regents to create a new State accountability plan that conforms to the new federal law. Unlike the Race to the Top grant, ESSA does not require the use of test scores in teacher evaluations. However, ESSA has NO bearing on 3012-d as the use of test scores in teacher evaluations in New York State is based solely on the State law passed by Governor Cuomo in 2015 and is not required by any federal statutes.

This begs the question, what exactly are the current NYSUT officers running on the Unity Slate urging legislators do in order to facilitate the decoupling of test scores from teacher evaluations? The answer is simple, nothing. Absolutely nothing.

When it comes to APPR, we must urge elected officials to reject junk science by amending or repealing the Education Transformation Act and immediately ending the misuse of assessment data by decoupling  student growth scores from teacher evaluations. This practice narrows the curriculum, discourages creativity in the classroom, unfairly labels excellent teachers ineffective, and discourages strong teachers from working with the most vulnerable students. I urge educators to inform lawmakers that the Board of Regents has not been charged with suggesting changes to the current teacher evaluation system, nor are they currently engaged in any work that can alter, modify, or improve this broken system because this requires a change to the law, something entirely outside of their purview.

If the current NYSUT leaders running on the Unity slate do not think it is wise to advocate for a change to the law, they must be upfront about this and they must be transparent in their thinking. True leaders educate their constituency, they present the facts and allow their members to make informed decisions. True leaders say what they mean and mean what they say.

Rank and file teachers must demand the repeal of the  Education Transformation now, because our profession cannot afford another wasted opportunity.

#CleanCampaignHonestCampaign

A Clean Campaign is an Honest Campaign: When It Comes to Standing Up For Teachers and Students, Facts Matter

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The essential work of our public schools is being undermined by a “test and punish” agenda whose intent is to dismantle the teaching profession and subject our schools to free-market reforms. NYSUT has the power to lead us away from this dead-end, towards a child-centered model that empowers teachers and provides students and schools with equitable resources and opportunities for success. My experience as an educator working under the current test and punish policies and as a founding member of NYSAPE has led me to believe that in order for NYSUT to accomplish this and truly mobilize the collective power of its membership, new leadership is needed. That is why I am running for Executive Vice President of NYSUT as part of the Stronger Together Slate along with Mike Lillis (President), Megan DeLaRosa (First Vice President), and Nate Hathaway (Secretary Treasurer). We are running against a slate that includes members of the current NYSUT leadership on behalf of the Unity Caucus.

The Unity Caucus has released their campaign platform as well as pleas for a “clean campaign.” I would argue that a clean campaign does not include remaining silent when your opponent attempts to stretch the truth. This is especially true when these murky “truths” lay claim to the efforts of the parents and rank and file teachers who have spent numerous lunch hours, late nights, and weekends devoted to advocating for the needs and well-being of children with little to no support from the current NYSUT officers on the Unity slate. Even more concerning, several of the achievements highlighted by the Unity Caucus serve to perpetuate the myth that legislative tweaks have ameliorated the negative impact of high stakes testing for students when the opposite is true. And given the actions (or lack of) by the current NYSUT officers on the Unity slate, their platform on issues that impact students requires further examination.

Unity claims the following legislative accomplishments:

“Annual record-breaking increases in School Aid”

Compared to the percentage of annual increases in school aid under Governor Spitzer, there is nothing record-breaking about the school aid increases achieved during the tenure of the current Unity Slate. It should be noted that by touting this as an achievement, Unity is echoing the same set of alternate facts put forth by Governor Cuomo himself.

“Turnover of 8 seats on the Board of Regents in favor of more pro-public education candidates including the appointment of a new Chancellor.”

While this did happen, it was not due to the influence or efforts of the Unity Caucus or any of the current NYSUT leaders running for office on their slate. New York State Allies for Public Education not only researched and publicized the previously unknown process for identifying and electing members to the Board of Regents, they actively recruited qualified individuals to apply for open positions, asked them to complete surveys to ascertain their positions on critical issues facing public education, and made these surveys publicly available. In an unprecedented effort to create transparency, NYSAPE filmed the interviews for these positions and made them publicly available. Parents and rank and file teachers organized and lobbied members of the Senate and the Assembly to vote in favor of pro-public education candidates and meticulously catalogued and publicized their votes. All of this was done without the support or assistance of ANY members of the Unity Slate. And it should be noted that when NYSAPE endorsed Betty Rosa for Chancellor of the Board of Regents, Stronger Together added their support to this endorsement.

“Testing reforms including a ban on Pre-K-2 standardized testing, limits on time devoted to testing, a moratorium on the use of state tests for certain consequences for students and a prohibition on using inBloom or other third-party providers for the data dashboard.”

Let’s look at each component of this statement individually:

Ban on Pre-K-2 Standardized Testing:

The ban on Pre-K -2 standardized testing is really not a ban at all, thanks to a legislative loophole that to date none of the current officers on the Unity slate have spoken out about or advocated against. The law states that the ban only applies to tests that require the students to physically fill in a pencil and paper bubble sheet. Therefore, there is no ban on standardized tests such as NWEA, Aimsweb, and iReady in grades K-2. While the current officers on the Unity Slate did not speak out about this, I did. You can read about that here. By perpetuating the myth of this ban, Unity is hurting K-2 students who are still subjected to developmentally inappropriate testing.

Limits on Time Devoted to Testing:

Claiming any reform related to time spent on testing is extremely misleading and the fact that it is even touted as an accomplishment is very telling. While NYS did pass a law to limit the amount of time spent on testing to 1% of instructional hours, it has been clear for some time that schools are in violation of this law and the current officers on the Unity Slate have done exactly nothing to raise public awareness of this. In a report by the Benjamin Center released in 2015, researchers provide evidence that “the ‘fixed costs’ of administering the NYS tests in grades 3-8 represent 2 percent of “required annual instructional hours” for grades 3-6 and 1.9 percent for grades 7-8, and exceeds, and almost doubles, the standard set by the legislature.”

Consider the 2016 implementation of Commissioner Elia’s untimed testing policy, a policy that lacks ANY supporting research or evidence. While rank and file teachers raised a red flag about the Commissioner’s failure to maintain ANY data as to how many students utilized this additional time and to what extent, the current officers on the Unity Slate did not. Not one has ever questioned whether or not the implementation of an untimed testing policy violates the 1% cap, nor have they advocated for the study of this policy and its impact on our classrooms.

NYS tests in grades 3-8 are longer than ever and our students continue to suffer the fallout.

Moratorium For Students

Since its inception, Unity leaders have touted this moratorium as a victory, illustrating their failure to comprehend the depth and scope of issues surrounding the impact of high stakes testing on children. A moratorium on the “adult” use of these scores for decision making means little to the nine-year-old who is compelled to sit for hours and hours of developmentally inappropriate testing which will likely result in him or her being labeled a failure.

InBloom:

The law that brought down inBloom was passed before the election of the current president, Karen Magee. It is well known that this accomplishment belongs to public school parents from across the state, and in particular NYC public school parents who filed a lawsuit against the State to protect student privacy. It is shameful that the current Unity Slate would claim this achievement as their own.

Unity lists the following platforms:

“We fully support a parent’s right to opt their children out of the state ELA and math assessments, including a member’s right to opt-out their own children.”

A Unity leaflet was made public in June of 2016 calling educators supporting opt out “reckless and feckless.” The public release of this leaflet resulted in an open letter from NYSAPE, a grassroots coalition of fifty parent and educator groups, rebuking this position. Additionally, on December 13 , 2016, NYSAPE leaders met with Andy Pallotta, Michael Mulgrew, and Randi Weingarten in an effort to seek out common ground that would allow us to work together to push back against the escalating attacks on public education. We urged them to support the opt out movement as it has been the most effective means of effecting change that benefits both teachers and students. NYSAPE leaders explained that students in NYS were still suffering under the weight of high stakes testing and we urged them to take a stronger stand for our children. At a delegate assembly meeting one day later, Michael Mulgrew called opt out “dangerous.”

To date, the current NYSUT officers running for re-election have done nothing to educate members or parents about the lack of substantive changes to the state assessments in grades 3-8 and the continued misuse of these scores in the ranking and sorting of schools, teachers, and students, to say nothing of the use of these scores in the efforts to privatize our schools.

Additionally, after a resolution to urge all NYSUT members to opt out their own children was unanimously passed at the 2015 NYSUT RA, the current NYSUT officers still have not asked NYSUT members to participate in the opt out movement.

“We support full funding of our public schools and universities, including the state’s Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) obligations, and oppose any elimination of foundation aid from the school aid formula.”

While NYSUT includes a mention of their opposition in a fax to legislators from members via the NYSUT MAC, their lack of mobilization around this issue has not been lost on the teachers, families, and communities who stand to lose the most. NYSUT’s “public school proud” campaign grossly eclipses any efforts to thwart the repeal of the foundation aid formula. Many are wondering why the current officers on the Unity slate seem so intent on currying favor with Governor Cuomo at the expense of our schools.

“We will fight to completely eliminate ties between testing and APPR, permanently decoupling all testing from teacher evaluation ratings.”

We are hurtling towards the end of the moratorium on the use of test scores in teacher evaluations, and yet the Unity candidate for NYSUT president (who is also the current NYSUT Executive VP and Unity candidate for president of NYSUT) has barely mentioned this. In fact, in Andy Pallotta’ s testimony this month on the proposed 2017-2018 executive budget for elementary and secondary education opposing the receivership law, he states that NYSUT “strongly opposes the Receivership Law as it mislabels schools, students and educators based on the failed implementation of the Common Core and flawed state standardized test scores.” Despite his acknowledgement that the scores are flawed, Pallotta NEVER ONCE mentions the misuse of these scores in teacher evaluations, nor does he urge lawmakers to repeal 3012d. Nor has he engaged in any organizing efforts around this issue since the issuance of the temporary moratorium on the use of state test scores in teacher evaluations.

When NYSAPE leaders met with Andy Pallotta and other NYSUT leaders in 2014, we asked them point blank if they would be willing to publicly disavow the use of test score in teacher evaluations. They indicated that they would not.

Additionally, when Senator Todd Kaminsky introduced legislation with bipartisan support to repeal 3012d and Receivership in 2016, Unity NYSUT leaders were silent and offered no support.

“Teachers are the professionals in our schools and they should be responsible for crafting curriculum and standards in line with local goals.  We will push for local autonomy over curriculum and standard development and oppose any effort to impose Common Core style standards on local school districts.”

It is common knowledge that the draft standards released in September 2016 were for the most part nothing more than minor tweaks and changes in verbiage. While parents and communities spoke out against Commissioner Elia’s false assertion that these tweaks represent a “total reboot,” not one of the current  NYSUT officers who are currently on the Unity Slate publicly took issue with SED’s failure to address concerns.

Members of the New Paltz Board of Education undertook a detailed study of the draft standards as well as an analysis of the flaws in the methodology employed in NYSED’s 2015 Aim High Survey, the results of which were supposedly used to guide the revisions which you can read here. Their efforts and their public comment make clear the extent to which the draft revisions fail to address the concerns of parents and educators:

The draft revisions do not reflect the concerns of parents and educators as depicted in Governor Cuomo’s Common Core Task Force Report. For example, The Common Core Task Force clearly outlined the concerns of early childhood experts regarding the developmentally inappropriate expectation that all kindergarteners “read emergent texts with purpose and understanding,” yet this standard remains unchanged in the draft revisions. Out of close to fifty revisions to the kindergarten ELA standards, only three of these revisions reflect content changes. This lack of meaningful revision can be observed across all grade level standards in both ELA and math.”

And while Unity was silent, many of the rank and file were not. In 2016, Stronger Together identified the lack of assessment boundaries as an insurmountable hurdle for parents and teachers to accurately understand the standards and how they would impact students and classrooms. Stronger Together educated their members and the public on this critical flaw in NYSUT. You can read more about that here.

“We recognize poverty as a leading factor in a student’s ability to learn and grow.  We recognize the impact of generational poverty on children and communities including its affect on their health, the increase of opioid addiction in our communities, and the limited access to good jobs, affordable housing and healthcare.

Year after year, Unity has failed to raise public awareness of the fact that Common Core tests in grades 3-8 disproportionately harm students in poverty and students of color.  In 2012, 20% of students in poverty scored a 1 on the NYS tests ELA tests in grades 3-8. In 2014 and 2015 this number ballooned to 43%.

In March of 2016, Mike Lillis, Michael O’Donnell, and I pointed out that:

Between 2012 and 2015, the number of non-white students who scored a level 1 on the 3-8 assessments rose from 12% to 41%. The number of white students who scored a 1 grew from 5% to 23%.  From 2010-12 white students in the richest districts had partial proficiency (score: 2+) rates 22 percentage points higher than non-white students in the poorest districts.  With the advent of the new Common Core assessments that gap has more than doubled to 54 percentage points.  It is disturbing that rather than remaining constant over time, the rate of failure for students of color grew disproportionately larger than white students. (You can read more about that here)

Where were the current NYSUT officers on the Unity slate candidates on this? Why did they fail to organize and advocate around the connection between disproportionately and erroneously labeling vulnerable students as failures with the school to prison pipeline and a growing opportunity gap? Where were their advocacy efforts aimed at raising public awareness about the bias in these assessments? And in light of these assaults on historically disenfranchised communities, why did the current leadership of NYSUT and UNITY Caucus spend a million dollars on advertisements promoting the positive direction of Governor Cuomo’s education policies?

NYSUT also recently declined to support the inclusion of an Opportunity to Learn index in the state’s accountability plan. This action, supported by dozens of grassroots parent organizations, would shift the focus away from blaming teachers for struggling schools, and towards inequitable opportunities to learn, such as large class sizes, high suspension rates, and teacher turnover. You can read more about that here.

A commitment to to social justice and exposing the truth often requires risk. Unfortunately, the current NYSUT officers running for re-election have not been willing to share in this risk with the rank and file teachers advocating for equitable learning opportunities.

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When one looks at many of Unity Slate’s purported legislative accomplishments, especially the ones tied to the well-being of children, it is disconcerting that they are so quick to lay claim to the unpaid activism and efforts of parents, community members, and rank and file teachers – efforts that they failed to support.

The current leadership seeking re-election has failed to understand the ineffectiveness of recent policy changes, changes that they consider accomplishments. In so doing, they have damaged the reputation of the union amongst parents and communities, the very groups that we will need to join forces with in order to safeguard our public schools and ensure the survival of the Union.

While they may be able to talk a good game, their efforts do not demonstrate real leadership.The Unity Caucus has made some large claims and has little to back them up. Are these claims wishful thinking or rather a shift in thinking? In either case, it is simply too little, too late.

A $109,600 Question for NYSUT Leaders

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I am a staunch supporter of unions as a powerful force for the mobilization and protection of workers, and in the case of teachers’ unions, for the protection of public schools and the students they serve. I stand in awe of the bravery, solidarity, and sacrifice of the Chicago Teachers’ Union and other unions across the country who have stood up not only for their members, but for the communities, schools, and children they serve. And over the past few years I have been inspired and humbled by the work of the local unions across New York who have taken a strong stand against the harmful education laws and policies that threaten our public schools. So I hesitate to once again call attention the misdeeds of the current NYSUT leadership. But at the end of the day, solidarity does not and should not come at the cost of looking the other way.

As a NYSUT member, I was shocked and dismayed when I recently learned that in 2016 NYSUT contributed $109,600 to the NYS Senate Republican Committee, a huge increase from NYSUT’s 2015 contribution of  $24,500 and zero contribution in 2014. My first instinct was to contact our union leaders and seek an explanation, but I have yet to receive a response.

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Funded by the individual contributions of thousands of New York teachers, VOTE COPE donations are ostensibly earmarked to support political campaigns and candidates who will enact legislation that supports educators. And as the war on public education and teachers has ramped up, educators in New York have been encouraged to increase their VOTE COPE contributions as a means of safeguarding the profession. Following this logic, one would infer that such a large contribution to the NYS Senate Republican Campaign Committee is reflective of the Committee’s support of NYS educators and public schools, right? Wrong.

While one can argue that there are heroes and villains on both sides of the aisle, Senate Republicans, led by Majority Leader John Flanagan, have worked against the best interests of students, schools, and educators at every turn. Over the past few years the Republican-led Senate has:

  • Refused to fully fund foundation aid
  • Pushed for an Education Tax Credit which would further divest public schools of much needed  resources
  • Sponsored legislation expanding the charter school cap
  • Refused to reverse harmful APPR legislation
NYSUT has been a vocal opponent of the expansion of charter schools in New York State, citing their negative impact on traditional public schools, students, and educators. You can read NYSUT analysis here and here. This makes such a sizeable contribution to the NYS Senate Republican Campaign Committee even more perplexing.

It’s no secret that Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, along with many other Senate Republicans and the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) Senators have received substantial political donations from wealthy charter school supporters and as a result, Senate republicans have served as staunch allies of those who would privatize public schools, deprofessionalize the teaching profession, and rob public schools of resources.

Examples of the cozy relationship enjoyed by charter supporters and NYS Senate Republicans are not hard to find. In June of this year, Senate Republicans introduced a provision that would allow charter schools to employ more non-certified teachers and provide SUNY with the authority to exempt charter schools from certain rules and regulations,- regulations that specifically adversely affect charter chain juggernaut, Success Academy. Read more about that here. 

Consider the Senate’s 2015 and 2016 Bullet Aid allocations. Bullet Aid distribution is based on politics rather than need or merit and legislators are not required to justify their allocations. Under the sponsorship of John Flanagan, the NYS Senate passed resolutions allocating millions of taxpayer dollars to reform groups while giving some of the most fiscally stressed schools in the state less than $20,000. The Center for Educational Innovation (CEI) is a nonprofit education organization based in New York City that provides services such as charter school design and development, restructuring of large schools into smaller learning communities, and turnaround support for low performing schools. In 2015, CEI received two bullet aid grants from Senate Republicans totaling $1,057,000 and in 2016 they received another grant of $1,566,000. Another organization with a vested interest in the privatization of public education, Agudath Israel, received $850,000 in both 2015 and 2016. I have written extensively about this here.

Both of these organizations are also members of the Coalition for Opportunity in Education, a coalition of pro-privatization and “reform” groups responsible for an aggressive and expensive lobbying campaign in support of Governor Cuomo’s failed Invest in Education tax credit, which would have funneled millions of taxpayer dollars to private schools. It should be noted that Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan is also one of the Coalition’s top campaign donation recipients.

So the question remains, why did NYSUT contribute over $100,000 of teacher-funded VOTE COPE money to the NYS Senate Republican Campaign committee? How do an education tax credit, diminished regulation of charter schools, refusal to fully fund foundation aid, and support of a harmful teacher evaluation law benefit those who pay dues and contribute their hard earned money to VOTE COPE funds? Is this the cost of a seat at the table? If so, $109,600 is a large chunk of change to sit at a table where we are being served up.

If our union leaders cannot sufficiently answer these questions, or do not feel obliged to answer them, perhaps it is time to opt out of VOTE COPE. More importantly, perhaps it is time to demand new leadership that will respect the union’s mandate to stand up for its’ membership, engage in transparency, and restore the integrity of these important positions.

 

NYS Psychometric Hocus Pocus Explained

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The Story of Jane and Johnny

 In 2015 Jane took the 6th grade NYS math test. Out of 72 possible raw points, she earned 45 points or 62% of the available raw points.

According to NYSED’s 2015 Raw Score to Scale Score Conversion Chart, Jane earned a scale score of 316.

NYSED’s Definitions of Performance Levels for the 2015 Grades 3-8 Mathematics Tests tells us that the range of scale scores for a proficient performance (level 3) on the 2015 6th grade math test is 318-339. A scale score of 318 is considered the “cut score” for a level 3 on the 2015 6th grade NYS Math test.

Jane almost made it! She earned 62% of the available raw points. Had Jane earned 46 of the available raw points, or 64%, her raw score would have been converted to a scale score of 318 and she would be considered proficient.

Eleven year old Jane has just been told that she is NOT on track to being career and college ready.

In 2016 Jane’s cousin Johnny took the 6th Grade NYS Math Test. Johnny earned 35 out of 67 possible raw points, or 52% of the available raw points.

According to NYSED’s 2016 Raw Score to Scale Score Conversion Chart, Johnny earned a scale score of 318.

As per NYSED’s Definitions of Performance Levels for the 2016 Grades 3-8 Mathematics Tests, the range of scale scores for a proficient performance (level 3) on the 2016 6th grade math test is 318-339. A scale score of 318 is considered the “cut score” for a level 3 on the 2015 6th grade NYS Math test.

What do you know? The cut score is the same as 2015! Johnny, who only earned 52% of available raw points on his test in 2016 is considered proficient. He is on track to career and college readiness, whatever that means.

How can this be?

Jane earned 62% of the available raw points compared to Johnny’s 52%. You might be wondering if NYS made it easier for Johnny to pass the test than Jane. If you have read the newspaper, you know that the Commissioner of Education has assured us this is not true because the cut scores didn’t change. And they didn’t! (see above) Yet somehow, Johnny was deemed to be proficient while earning fewer raw points on the test than Jane. What gives?

Some people say that Jane and Johnny’s scores can be explained by something called equating.

The idea is that from year to year state tests can be a little different. One year a test might be slightly harder, the next year – slightly easier. The folks who (mis)use these scores want to be able to compare them from year to year. In order to account for these fluctuations in test difficulty, the number of raw points needed to get the same scale score is occasionally tweaked from one year to next. If the test is easier, maybe you need a point or two more to be considered proficient. If the test is harder, maybe you need a point or two fewer to earn the same scale score. Equating is the term used for making these adjustments.

If we look at the difference between the percentages of raw points needed to achieve a scale score of 318 (the cut score for proficiency) for the 6th grade math test in 2016 (52%) versus 2015 (64%), we can see that it dropped twelve percentage points. Is that a lot? Well, let’s go back and look at the raw score to scale score conversions going all the way back to 2013, when Common Core based state tests first began. The percentage of raw points needed to achieve a proficient performance (level 3) typically went up or down no more than 3 or 4 percentage points on any test up until 2016. So yes, a drop of 12 percentage points is unprecedented. And here’s the thing, we are only talking about one test. If we look at all of the 2016 NYS ELA and Math tests in grades 3-8, the percentage of raw points needed to achieve the cut score for proficiency dropped on all but one test.

Eleven out of twelve, or ninety-two percent of the 2016 tests were made easier to pass. Compare this to 2014 when fifty percent of the tests saw an increase in the percentage of raw points needed to earn a proficient performance and the other fifty percent saw a decrease. In 2015, the required percentage of raw points required to earn a proficient performance was lowered on only forty-two percent of the tests. Clearly there was a great deal of equating going on in 2016.

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As I mentioned earlier, in order to justify equating the percentage of raw points needed to achieve a given performance level in a given year, there must be a marked change in the difficulty of the test from the year before. By that logic, one could infer that the State had to make it easier to pass the 2016 tests because they were significantly more difficult than the 2015 tests.

But there’s a problem with that argument. Commissioner Elia has made numerous, emphatic statements that the content of the 2015 and 2016 tests were comparable in difficulty (I refuse to use the “r” word). If the tests were comparable, what’s with the tinkering?

There is one definitive way that NYSED could prove that it was necessary to engage in significant equating of this year’s scores. After a test is given, each item on the test is assigned something called a p-value. Put simply, a test item’s p-value is its’ relative difficulty based on the number of students who answered it correctly and incorrectly. Ostensibly, any equating that takes place when a raw score is converted to a scale score is done based on these p-values. Therefore, one can assume that NYSED has the p-values from the 2016 tests. Typically these p-values are part of a technical report that is usually released about 10 months after the state tests are given. While NYSED may not have the technical report ready now, we know that the p-values for ALL test items have been calculated – the tests could not be scored without them. Why not release the p-values for ALL test items immediately and put all speculation to rest?

Sum of Change

At the very least, NYSED owes us an explanation, preferably one that makes sense. Given the high stakes attached to these test scores, it matters whether or not they are reliable and valid. Based on these scores schools can be closed, teachers fired, and children labeled as being on track for future failure.

The NYS Education Department has an admitted history of inflating and manipulating test scores. Knowing the facts, it would be naïve not to question the State’s testing data. Rather than lash out at the parents asking questions, NYSED should offer a well-reasoned explanation and release all relevant test data.

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The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same: NYSED’s Bungled Release of the 2016 Test Scores

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The NYS Department of Education recently released this year’s state test scores with test refusal information on a Friday afternoon, timing typically reserved for when an organization wants to bury a news item.

Before opening the State’s press release and PowerPoint slides, many expected more of the same: minor increases touted as large improvements, a characterization of opt out as a movement for and by privileged parents with struggling students, and a tone deaf approach to the changes demanded by parents and educators.

On July 14th I participated in NYSED’s ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act) “think tank” or “task force” meeting. The group was tasked with representing stakeholders (the State is only planning two regional public hearings) and guiding the creation of New York’s new accountability plan as required by the federal government to align with the regulations put forth in ESSA. During the Commissioner’s opening remarks, she asserted that the public thought the 2016 state test questions were “fair” and went so far as to say that that there was “very little criticism” of the tests. Commissioner Elia went on to state that she had received overwhelmingly positive feedback across the state regarding the new practice of untimed tests.

It should be noted that the NYS Department of Education did not require school districts to maintain any data or information regarding which students, let alone how many students took advantage of the additional time afforded under the Commissioner’s new untimed testing edict. Considering the State’s penchant for data collection, this was an unusual “oversight.” For a state department of education to implement a brand new, never-before-piloted testing protocol or practice, to essentially experiment on almost a million children, and maintain no data to measure its efficacy is negligent at best. To declare it a success without any formal survey or interviews of students, educators, or administrators is highly questionable.

Ironically, on July 22nd, 8 days after publicly citing overwhelming support of the practice, the Commissioner disseminated a survey of teachers regarding untimed testing.

Why does this matter?

As advocacy groups like NYSAPE have recently pointed out, two years ago, New York State passed a law placing a 1% cap on the amount of instructional hours that could be spent on mandated state testing. As a result of Commissioner Elia’s new untimed test directive, many students have spent more than four times the amount of time on state testing than New York State law allows.

We have no way of knowing whether this new, experimental, and potentially illegal practice disproportionately impacted poorer districts or districts under the threat of receivership, or whether or not districts coerced students to utilize the extra time. We cannot know if the extra time yielded better scores for individual students, or whether it made no difference. We have no qualitative data as to whether or not this new practice diminished test anxiety. This was sloppy at best, and when the well-being of children is at stake, when we are weighing whether or not is is appropriate to allow children as young as 8 years old to sit with an exam for 5 hours per day, 3 days in a row, such an “oversight” is unacceptable.

Cut to today’s release of the 2016 testing data. There is little to celebrate. While the state tests are still labeling more than 60% of the children in NYS as failures, once again NYS and the pro-“reform”, pro-privatization groups are applauding minor gains in ELA and largely flat math scores. Among certain sub-groups, the increases, particularly in ELA scores, were inexplicably larger.

When describing and disaggregating the data from this year’s test questions, NYSED consistently compares this year’s data to last year’s data, highlighting the improvement in scores where they exist. Ironically, NYSED’s own press release states, “While the content of the 2016 tests and last year’s tests are comparable and similarly rigorous, it is not possible to make direct comparisons of the 2016 results to prior years’ results because of changes to the tests this year. The 2016 results are valid and reliable indicators of student proficiency in the tested grades and subjects.” The State’s PowerPoint presentation reiterates, “Given the numerous changes in the tests, we cannot pinpoint exactly why the test scores increased.”

To recap, according to NYSED, direct comparisons can not be made, but the state will make them anyway in order to give the illusion that their Common-Core-based testing program and test-based accountability system are working. And because of a lack of due diligence in keeping data on yet another large scale experiment on our children, NYSED cannot say whether or not untimed testing was successful. And while the state cannot pinpoint why test scores increased because they did not properly monitor the variables in this year’s test, and because this year’s tests cannot be compared to last year’s tests (although they are being compared), these tests are valid and reliable. Got that?

Despite the efforts to squash the opt out movement, test refusals increased this year. These efforts included the State’s  Assessment Toolkit designed to help parents “recognize the importance of state tests” and Commissioner Elia’s constant messaging that she is “listening” to parents and educators. Test refusal increased in many high need school districts as more and more parents gained access to factual information and 50% of test refusers refused for the first time this year. Clearly, the opt out movement is alive and well.

Despite her constant “I am listening” messaging, and despite the persistence of the opt out movement Commissioner Elia is clearly not listening. In a July 29th interview with Politico, the Commissioner insulted parents refusing the 2016 state tests in a remark reminiscent of Arne Duncan’s infamous soccer mom gaffe. The Commissioner states, ““I think what you’re seeing is many people who finally realized, ‘Well they are listening and they’re making changes,’ [and] they were willing to have their children test,” Elia said. “You have another group of parents who said ‘Geez, I think I’m not going to be happy with what’s going on and I don’t know about a lot of changes, and so therefore I’m going to have my child not test.’”

In the PowerPoint slides accompanying the release of 2016 testing data, the State enumerates the various “important” changes they have made. These are the changes that according to Commissioner Elia, test refusal parents “don’t know about”:

-Started with a new test vendor; even greater teacher involvement

While NYS has contracted with a new test vendor, Questar, all passages and questions on this year’s test (and next year’s test) were constructed from an already existing bank of Pearson text passages and questions. The 22 educators involved in test development could only accept or reject text and questions from the Pearson created pool.

-Reduced the number of questions on every grade 3-8 assessment

The New York State tests rival the SATs in length. Now with untimed testing, some students are testing for triple the amount of time required to take the SATs. Reducing a test that is grossly inappropriate in length by one reading passage or a handful of multiple choice questions is negligible. While Governor Cuomo’s Common Core Task Force report recommended that NYS reduce testing by one full day, Commissioner Elia revealed in an April 2016  interview with the Poughkeepsie Journal that this may not happen, “We’re going to look to try to get it down from three days (of testing) to two, maybe we won’t be able to … we’re going to review it.”

-Allowed students working productively to complete their exams

This “change” was implemented without the backing of any research or evidence. The practice of giving young learners untimed tests which can last up to 5 or 6 hours for three consecutive days is highly inappropriate and in school districts under the threat of receivership, can lead to unethical testing situations.

-Released more test questions than ever before and earlier to support instruction

75% of test questions and student reports  were released on June 1st. With only three weeks remaining in the school year, it is doubtful that these reports could “support instruction.”

Here’s what those in the opt out movement know has not changed:

  • NYS tests are STILL based on inappropriate standards that lack a foundation in research or best practice
  • Teachers continue to have little meaningful input into the construction of state tests
  • State tests continue to be too long and continue to rob students of valuable learning time while diverting financial resources from school programming
  • State tests continue to lack instructional value
  • The misuse of test scores to evaluate teacher efficacy and to sort, label and punish schools persists
  • The focus on test scores continues to narrow the curriculum
  • Many children continue to be denied equitable, fairly funded public educations

Commissioner Elia has made some small but laudable adjustments, but when the experience of the individual child remains the same, it is disingenuous to tout these changes as significant.

During the ESSA think tank meeting, the work group I participated in was told that if most members in the group held a majority opinion about a particular aspect of the regulations and one person had a different idea, NYSED would choose that one person’s idea if it aligns with the Regent’s Agenda and that there is no democratic, majority rule in the “think tank.” In contrast to the theme of collaboration and public engagement, we were essentially told that our input holds little to no weight.

I wasn’t surprised.