Beware the Innovative Assessment Kool-Aid


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.


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