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.

 

What is the Center for Educational Innovation and Why Did They Get Over a Million Dollars of New York Taxpayer Money? (July 2016 Update)

*July 2016 Update: Bullet Aid for the 2016-2017 fiscal year ( As outlined in Senate Resolution R6507, sponsored by Senator John Flanagan) allots $1,566,000 to Center for Educational Innovation $850,000 to Agudath Israel.

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While many New York schools received an increase in school funding this year, the state’s formula for determining who gets what remains shrouded in mystery. Many schools, including some of the poorest in the state, will see little fiscal relief. Those districts often depend on “bullet aid” for an infusion of funding– funding that could save a teaching position, decrease class size, or restore an elective. The ability to give “bullet aid” is split between the Assembly and Senate, and each allocates its own set of grants.

Lawmakers use whatever criteria they want to decide which schools get money. “Bullet aid” distribution is not based on need or on the merit of a program. Rather, it is based on politics. This year’s budget allocated $42 million for the line item grants that make up bullet aid: $19 million for the Senate, and $23 million for the Assembly. The amount of money to be distributed is determined when the budget is passed and grantees are designated at a later date, according to Senate and Assembly resolutions.

Some school board members and school administrators noticed that their schools received little to no bullet aid from the Senate when it passed its “bullet aid” resolution on June 25th. So where did the aid go? Apparently quite a bit went not to schools, but to school “reformers”. The Center for Educational Innovation will receive two grants totaling a whopping $1,057,000. To put this amount into perspective, the highest grant awarded to a school district by the Senate this year was $150,000, with most school districts who received aid getting between $5 and $25,000. A grant in excess of a million dollars is startling. The only other group to receive such a generous windfall was Agudath Israel, which received “bullet aid” in the amount of $850,000. Indian River Central School District, the 2nd poorest district in NYS, received $29,000 in bullet aid, a paltry sum compared to the hundreds of thousands bestowed to the Center for Educational Innovation and Agudath Israel.

So who is the Center for Educational Innovation and how did they merit such a windfall? The Center for Educational Innovation (CEI) is a nonprofit education organization based in New York City. According to their website, CEI is “a recognized leader in advancing meaningful reforms in public education,” and provides services such as charter school design and development, restructuring of large schools into smaller learning communities, and turnaround support for low performing schools. CEI has a long history of receiving large, taxpayer funded grants. In 2007, CEI received a 10 million dollar grant from the United States Department of Education, and another in 2011 for 17.5 million dollars. Both grants were earmarked for establishing performance-based incentive programs for teachers, based on the very same tests that hundreds of thousands of New York Parents have rallied against.

Both CEI and Agudath Israel (along with many other reformer groups) have spent tens of thousands of dollars lobbying the NYS legislature. According to CEI’s 2012 tax return, CEI “uses lobbying firms to meet on its behalf with NYS assembly and senate members to secure funding for special legislative grants.”

Each organization is also a member 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. David Zweib, executive vice president of Agudath Israel sits on the board of the Coalition for Opportunity in Education, and during his tenure as a board member the organization has donated over $300,000 to individual members of the NYS Legislature. It should be noted that the Coalition’s largest donation in 2014 was to Senator Jeffrey Klein, followed by Senator Martin Golden and Senator John Flanagan, former chair of the senate education committee and now leader of the NYS senate.

Senator Klein, Senator Flanagan, and Senator Golden have also received thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from Coalition for Public Charter Schools NY and StudentsFirstNY. Perhaps it is not surprising then that the Senate “bullet aid” resolution sponsored by both Senator Flanagan and Senator Klein funneled almost 2 million taxpayer dollars away from public schools and towards pro-“reform” and pro-privatization groups.

Like members of the Senate, CEI maintains close ties to wealthy “reformers”. In November of 2013, CEI held a gala honoring James Simons, one of the top pro-privatization donors in the 2014 NYS elections, contributing approximately 3 million dollars to “reform”-friendly politicians including Senator Flanagan. NYS Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch was honored at the very same Gala.

Speaking of Chancellor Tisch, it would seem that education reform is a family affair. Ann Tisch, sister-in-law of Chancellor Tisch, sits on the board of million-dollar “bullet aid” recipient CEI while the Chancellor’s brother-in-law, Thomas Tisch, sits on the board of the Coalition for Opportunity in Education. Andrew Tisch, husband of CEI board member Ann Tisch, is a director of K12 Inc., a for-profit education company that sells curriculum and online learning software to state and local governments. According to their website, K12 Inc. considers itself a proud and active member of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

Despite these connections, New York State Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch is allowed to oversee the implementation of the testing program responsible for providing the data upon which all of these organizations feed. And in perhaps the most egregious example of privatization minded “reform”, Chancellor Tisch famously led the creation of the privately funded Regents Fellows, a think tank funded by wealthy donors that has been given tremendous power within the New York State Department of Education, with little to no public oversight.

Clearly, New York State is ground zero for the toxic combination of money, influence, questionable “charitable organizations,” and a Senate for sale.

The movement to privatize and corporatize public education is not driven by parents or those concerned with social justice (as many “reformers” would have us believe), but rather by a wealthy and connected network of education “reform” cronies with money to spend on lobbying and political donations. And while our public schools are starving, these privatization efforts are being fueled by taxpayer dollars. Hundreds of thousands of New York parents object to the high stakes test driven policies and “reform” efforts funded by the Senate and under these circumstances, the opt out movement will surely continue to grow.