Failed Tests and New York’s Looming Graduation Crisis

Bianca Tanis, Founding Member, New York State Allies for Public Education (NYSAPE);Michael Lillis, President, Lakeland Federation of Teachers; and Michael O’Donnell, Trustee, New Paltz Central School District Board of Education

(This article reflects the views of the authors and does not construe an official position of the New Paltz Central School District Board of Education.)

Introduction

The New York State Common Core tests are almost upon us and promises of sweeping changes to NYS tests and standards are rampant. The NYS Education Department is urging parents to opt back in and the media has reported that education officials are “bending over backwards” to address the concerns of parents and educators.

While the State has made some minor changes to this year’s tests (and promises more in the future), the fact remains that young children will still be subjected to reading passages years above grade level, test questions with more than one plausible answer, tests that are too long, waste valuable resources, and worst of all, tests that engender feelings of frustration, failure, angst, and confusion in our youngest learners.

Manufactured Crisis

Claims that untimed tests will alleviate stress on children are unfounded and misleading to parents. Giving a child more time to struggle with an inappropriate test rather than just fixing the flawed system is misguided and will create a logistical nightmare for the schools forced to accommodate this band-aid solution. Teachers will be pulled from classrooms to monitor student conversations during lunch breaks to ensure that 8-, 9-, and 10-year old students are not talking about the tests. At a time when our schools are being starved of funding, this is a gross and needless misallocation of resources.

In fact, very little has changed for children, and these damaging tests continue to threaten our children now and into the future.  How much damage?  A quarter million students are being labeled, annually, as failures.  The transition to “college-ready” graduation requirements in 2022 will result in the loss of more than 100,000 graduates per year.  Use this calculator to assess the impact on your school district: http://tiny.cc/DistrictCCR.

Unless we demand an immediate paradigm shift, many students will not only be labeled failures at 8-, 9-, and 10-years old, they will not graduate. We are not just talking about struggling students and students with special needs facing a graduation crisis.

New York has touted its testing program in grades 3-8 as a means of predicting whether or not a child is on track to be ready for career and college. However, NYS’s attempts to align test scores with a college readiness benchmark have been rife with problems and volatility. Subsequently, the use of these flawed benchmarks to determine who is proficient and who is not and  who will and will not obtain the necessary “college ready” test scores to earn a diploma jeopardizes the future of hundreds of thousands of students in NYS. Despite promises of sweeping change, the Governor’s Common Core Task Force completely ignored these deeply flawed college and career benchmarks, which must be met by all students to graduate starting in 2022.

Why are we here?

The most compelling justification for the State’s implementation of the Common Core Learning Standards and CC tests aligned to a state benchmark for college readiness has been data indicating the numbers of students that enter 2- and 4-year colleges and subsequently require remedial coursework.  From the Common Core Task Force Report, “According to The State University of New York, each year about 50 percent of first-year students at two-year colleges and 20 percent of those entering four-year universities require basic developmental courses before they can begin credit-bearing coursework”.  

This is a  significant point and clearly more needs to be done to help these students both before and after entering college to help guarantee their success.  But using these data to assert claims of a public education crisis and to justify the current state testing regime has several major problems.

  • The majority of the two year schools are community colleges, which are non-competitive in their admissions.  Many of these students are already identified during K-12 instruction as needing remediation, and schools should be given resources to continue these efforts. Many educators have argued that a focus on testing and test-driven instruction makes it more difficult to meet the needs of struggling learners and may actually result in more students requiring remediation post high school.
  • There are no standard assessments or criteria used to determine which require remediation upon entering college.  Several studies have found placement exams to be poor indicators of college readiness.
  • There is a financial incentive for colleges in placing students in remediation and financial incentives for the corporations that create the placement exams.
  • The SUNY system only represents 42% of New York’s college population.
  • These figures ignore Independent Universities which make up one third of the collegiate population and have a very low remediation rate of 5.6%.

In addition to claiming that large numbers of students are leaving high school unprepared for college, New York State has made the claim that CC aligned grades 3-8 Common Core assessments are valid indicators of college and career readiness. Considering the sweeping judgements and policy decisions that are made based on these test scores, it is critical that this claim is scrutinized.

Benchmarking

In 2013 New York contracted with the College Board, producers of the SAT, to develop a metric that could be used to identify student readiness for college.  This number would set the thresholds for proficiency on all Math and ELA tests down through third grade.  The College Board, based on SED’s guidance, determined a student would need the following scores on their SAT in order to be considered “college ready.”

Critical Reading 560
Writing 530
Math 540
Total 1630

A score of a 1630 on the SAT is in the 66th percentile, which means that only 34% of test takers attain this score or higher.  The College Board uses a score of 1550 for its own benchmark, a score in the 57th percentile.  

This process should have raised concerns, as it reduces something as complex as whether or not a student is ready for college down to a single test score.  Were it this easy, no school would have an admissions office – a computer could make admissions decisions.  

Using a single benchmark aligned with the SAT for all students presents a significant problem. All but the most severely handicapped students take the NY state tests, but only students that have self-identified as going to competitive colleges take the SAT.  If you plan on going to a community college, no SAT is required. So New York expects all but its most severely handicapped students to be doing as well as the top 34% of college bound students nationally.  In fact, the graduation requirements for the class of 2022 (current 6th graders) will deny a diploma to any student not meeting this benchmark, or, in other words, doing as well as the top 34% of college bound students nationally.  

We must also ask the question, is the SAT good enough at predicting success in college that New York should use it, exclusively, to benchmark its tests?   A 2014 study looked at 33 colleges that had SAT- and ACT-optional admissions policies.This study looked at 123,000 students and found that there is no meaningful difference in these two populations in terms of college graduation rates and grade point average. Those who did not submit SAT scores were more likely to be the first in their family to attend college, female, a Pell grant recipient, or a person of color. These individuals represent some of our most vulnerable student populations – they are the least likely to overcome the damage of being labeled unprepared for college based on a test score. Yet these students are just as likely to be successful in college when we consider other, more valid and predictive indicators of post high school success.

We also know that SAT scores are very closely tied to income.  A student who scores a 1630 on the SATs likely comes from a home with an income upwards of $160,000. We also know that SAT scores are a relatively weak indicator of student success in college – high school grades and success in higher level math courses are much better predictors of college performance. But despite the evidence, NYS has chosen to hang its hat on a weak indicator that is known to favor students who come from affluent, college-educated families. By correlating success with a measure that favors privileged students, are we reinforcing the existing class structure and promoting a biased instrument that does more harm than good?

Proficiency vs Home Value

Aligning the NYS college-readiness benchmark with a norm-referenced test like the SAT also ensures that many New York State students will be labeled failures. Norm-referenced tests compare test-takers to other test-takers and rank them by performance. On a norm-referenced test there must be test takers whose performance is considered below average, average, and above average – even when all test takers have demonstrated mastery on a given skill. These tests are intended to stratify students along a predetermined distribution and will always yield below-average scores for a substantial population of test-takers.

Criterion-referenced tests are tests that measure a student’s performance in terms of a specific set of skills or content. The Common Core State Standards are descriptions of specific skills, and, therefore, it would have made more sense for the state to have chosen a criterion based system of 3-8 Math and ELA assessments.  All students should have the ability to demonstrate proficiency independent of the performance of others in their cohort. The use of a norm-referenced test is highly questionable.

The Achievement Gap

While the SAT-based college-readiness benchmark created by New York does not correlate with the actual experience of New York’s students, it does appear to have a disproportionately negative impact on our non-white students.  Rather than helping to close the achievement gap, it is making the gap larger.

Proficiency vs Ethnicity and Economics

In 2012, 13% of economically disadvantaged students scored a 1 on the grades 3-8 assessments. In 2013, this number ballooned to 44% with the introduction of the CC aligned assessments and NYS college-readiness proficiency benchmarks . In the course of one year, we more than tripled the number of students living in poverty who were deemed “Below Standard.”

Vulnerable Populations below Standard

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.

Income vs Below Standard

Rhetoric vs. Reality

We know that NYS CC tests aligned with this benchmark yield data that do not correlate with what we know about the post-secondary success of NYS students and even more importantly, disproportionately labels vulnerable students as failures. To date there has been no evidence to indicate that these assessments actually hold any predictive value yet they continue to be used to make graduation determinations and to judge the efficacy of our schools and teachers.

When we compare the actual readiness data – 51.6% based on non-remediated college enrollment – with the results of the state assessments, we find that NY is falsely labeling 240,000 students annually.  The parents of these students will receive a letter from State Ed explaining how their son or daughter is not on track to be ready for a college or a career, when if compared to historic trends, we know they are.  The prospect of incorrectly labeling a child (or 240,000 children) not college- and career-ready from third grade through twelfth, then denying them a diploma, has very serious implications.  To see the effect on your district, click here: http://tiny.cc/DistrictCCR.

False Picture of Readiness

These contradictory data are not simply academic; there is real damage being done to children as a result.  The Class of 2022 (current 6th grade) will need to pass Regents exams at these new, artificially elevated thresholds that align with the NYS definition of college readiness.  Graduation rates will plummet from 78% to approx. 26%, resulting in the loss of 110,000 high school graduates, 50,000 of which were fully prepared for college success.

Conclusion

It is telling that the Governor’s Common Core Task Force completely skirted the issue of the test benchmarks.  The Governor and Commissioner of Education have made much of their efforts to improve the State’s tests, but in reality, the 21 recommendations cannot meaningfully address the manufactured proficiency crisis New York students face.  In standardized testing, the benchmarking process is the key to all outcomes.  None of the Task Force’s 21 recommendations require State Ed to develop a new college and career readiness benchmark, so we can be sure the future tests will be producing the same flawed results.  Whether the tests are Questar or Pearson, created by teachers or non-teachers, shorter or longer, they will ultimately produce the same results for our students.

The outlook created by the CC aligned tests in grades 3-8 assessments is bleak. But it is important to remember that other measures for college readiness, including non-remediation, 2nd year persistence, non-remediation and persistence in combination, college graduation rates, the NAEP, and SAT and ACT benchmarks for college-readiness – all paint a better picture.

Until New York State revises its flawed college readiness benchmarks, there is no escape from pending graduation requirements that will deny thousands of students a diploma. 21% of proficient children, statewide, are being falsely told they are not at “grade level” and will not be ready for college. Will your child fall into the pool of children? Can you wait to find out? Refusing the NYS tests in grades 3-8 remains the most effective tool for demanding change and ensuring that ALL children have the opportunity to graduate and experience success.

If we acquiesce to these fundamentally flawed tests, our children will pay the price now and they will pay the price later.

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8 thoughts on “Failed Tests and New York’s Looming Graduation Crisis

  1. RAT RACE: So the tests basically judge kids on a curve with quotas for passing and failing. This seems like a big shift in education policy developed by some corporate bean counter who never stepped into a classroom. The general public seems not to understand the idea that one test for every kid no matter their station in life has to be mismatched to their actual learning abilities.

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  2. Pingback: Failed Tests and New York’s Looming Graduation Crisis | christybez

  3. Pingback: NY Opt Out: How the Tests Will Harm Children | Diane Ravitch's blog

  4. Pingback: Parents respond to TOOL kit rhetoric and attempted manipulation pressuring us to “opt back in”. | stopcommoncorenys

  5. A quarter million students labeled again, and again, as failures. How can we think of this as “progress?” As a veteran teacher pushed out of her beloved teaching assignment by the mandates of governmental test-score “reform,” I sat down to write about my experiences. It wasn’t long before I realized that the modern-day neoliberal theory of educational progress had a LOT to do with sorting, ranking, humiliating — and ultimately segregating our nation’s poorest children. ciedieaech.wordpress.com WHY IS YOU ALWAYS GOT TO BE TRIPPIN’: SCHOOL REFORM AND THE RACIAL DIVIDE

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  6. Pingback: Roy Hoyt | Opting out of New York Testing

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