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.

bullet aid image

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.

 

Read the blog post that PARCC doesn’t want you to see — and then share it on your blogs!

Here is the critique of the 4th grade PARCC exam  by an anonymous teacher, as it originally appeared on Celia Oyler’s blog before she was threatened by PARCC and deleted key sections.  After people tweeted links to the blog, PARCC absurdly complained to Twitter that these tweets infringed on their copyright.

Via Leonie Haimson:

As an act of collective disobedience to the reigning testocracy, I urge all other fellow bloggers to paste the below critique and copy it into their blogs as well.

As the teacher points out below, “we can use these three PARCC prompts to glimpse how the high stakes accountability system has deformed teaching and warped learning in many public schools across the United States. ”

No high-stakes test that is used to judge students, teachers and schools should be allowed to be kept secret to escape accountability for the test-makers — especially ones as flawed as these!

If you do repost this, please let me know by emailing me at leoniehaimson@gmail.com thanks!

The PARCC Test: Exposed

The author of this blog posting is a public school teacher who will remain anonymous.

I will not reveal my district or my role due to the intense legal ramifications for exercising my Constitutional First Amendment rights in a public forum. I was compelled to sign a security form that stated I would not be “Revealing or discussing passages or test items with anyone, including students and school staff, through verbal exchange, email, social media, or any other form of communication” as this would be considered a “Security Breach.” In response to this demand, I can only ask—whom are we protecting?

There are layers of not-so-subtle issues that need to be aired as a result of national and state testing policies that are dominating children’s lives in America. As any well prepared educator knows, curriculum planning and teaching requires knowing how you will assess your students and planning backwards from that knowledge. If teachers are unable to examine and discuss the summative assessment for their students, how can they plan their instruction? Yet, that very question assumes that this test is something worth planning for. The fact is that schools that try to plan their curriculum exclusively to prepare students for this test are ignoring the body of educational research that tells us how children learn, and how to create developmentally appropriate activities to engage students in the act of learning. This article will attempt to provide evidence for these claims as a snapshot of what is happening as a result of current policies.

The PARCC test is developmentally inappropriate

In order to discuss the claim that the PARCC test is “developmentally inappropriate,” examine three of the most recent PARCC 4th grade items.

A book leveling system, designed by Fountas and Pinnell, was made “more rigorous” in order to match the Common Core State Standards. These newly updated benchmarks state that 4th Graders should be reading at a Level S by the end of the year in order to be considered reading “on grade level.” [Celia’s note: I do not endorse leveling books or readers, nor do I think it appropriate that all 9 year olds should be reading a Level S book to be thought of as making good progress.]

The PARCC, which is supposedly a test of the Common Core State Standards, appears to have taken liberties with regard to grade level texts. For example, on the Spring 2016 PARCC for 4th Graders, students were expected to read an excerpt from Shark Life: True Stories about Sharks and the Sea by Peter Benchley and Karen Wojtyla. According to Scholastic, this text is at an interest level for Grades 9-12, and at a 7th Grade reading level. The Lexile measure is 1020L, which is most often found in texts that are written for middle school, and according to Scholastic’s own conversion chart would be equivalent to a 6th grade benchmark around W, X, or Y (using the same Fountas and Pinnell scale).

Even by the reform movement’s own standards, according to MetaMetrics’ reference material on Text Complexity Grade Bands and Lexile Bands, the newly CCSS aligned “Stretch” lexile level of 1020 falls in the 6-8 grade range. This begs the question, what is the purpose of standardizing text complexity bands if testing companies do not have to adhere to them? Also, what is the purpose of a standardized test that surpasses agreed-upon lexile levels?

So, right out of the gate, 4th graders are being asked to read and respond to texts that are two grade levels above the recommended benchmark. After they struggle through difficult texts with advanced vocabulary and nuanced sentence structures, they then have to answer multiple choice questions that are, by design, intended to distract students with answers that appear to be correct except for some technicality.

Finally, students must synthesize two or three of these advanced texts and compose an original essay. The ELA portion of the PARCC takes three days, and each day includes a new essay prompt based on multiple texts. These are the prompts from the 2016 Spring PARCC exam for 4th Graders along with my analysis of why these prompts do not reflect the true intention of the Common Core State Standards.

ELA 4th Grade Prompt #1

Refer to the passage from “Emergency on the Mountain” and the poem “Mountains.” Then answer question 7.

  1. Think about how the structural elements in the passage from “Emergency on the Mountain” differ from the structural elements in the poem “Mountains.”

Write an essay that explains the differences in the structural elements between the passage and the poem. Be sure to include specific examples from both texts to support your response.

The above prompt probably attempts to assess the Common Core standard RL.4.5: “Explain major differences between poems, drama, and prose, and refer to the structural elements of poems (e.g., verse, rhythm, meter) and drama (e.g., casts of characters, settings, descriptions, dialogue, stage directions) when writing or speaking about a text.”

However, the Common Core State Standards for writing do not require students to write essays comparing the text structures of different genres. The Grade 4 CCSS for writing about reading demand that students write about characters, settings, and events in literature, or that they write about how authors support their points in informational texts. Nowhere in the standards are students asked to write comparative essays on the structures of writing. The reading standards ask students to “explain” structural elements, but not in writing. There is a huge developmental leap between explaining something and writing an analytical essay about it. [Celia’s note: The entire enterprise of analyzing text structures in elementary school – a 1940’s and 50’s college English approach called “New Criticism” — is ridiculous for 9 year olds anyway.]

The PARCC does not assess what it attempts to assess

ELA 4th Grade Prompt #2

Refer to the passages from “Great White Shark” and Face the Sharks. Then answer question 20.

 Using details and images in the passages from “Great White Sharks” and Face to Face with Sharks, write an essay that describes the characteristics of white sharks.

It would be a stretch to say that this question assesses CCSS W.4.9.B: “Explain how an author uses reasons and evidence to support particular points in a text.”

In fact, this prompt assesses a student’s ability to research a topic across sources and write a research-based essay that synthesizes facts from both articles. Even CCSS W.4.7, “Conduct research projects that build knowledge through investigation of different aspects of a topic,” does not demand that students compile information from different sources to create an essay. The closest the standards come to demanding this sort of work is in the reading standards; CCSS RI.4.9 says: “Integrate information from two texts on the same topic in order to write or speak about the subject knowledgeably.” Fine. One could argue that this PARCC prompt assesses CCSS RI.4.9.

However, the fact that the texts presented for students to “use” for the essay are at a middle school reading level automatically disqualifies this essay prompt from being able to assess what it attempts to assess. (It is like trying to assess children’s math computational skills by embedding them in a word problem with words that the child cannot read.)

ELA 4th Grade Prompt #3

  1. In “Sadako’s Secret,” the narrator reveals Sadako’s thoughts and feelings while telling the story. The narrator also includes dialogue and actions between Sadako and her family. Using these details, write a story about what happens next year when Sadako tries out for the junior high track team. Include not only Sadako’s actions and feelings but also her family’s reaction and feelings in your story.

Nowhere, and I mean nowhere in the Common Core State Standards is there a demand for students to read a narrative and then use the details from that text to write a new story based on a prompt. That is a new pseudo-genre called “Prose Constructed Response” by the PARCC creators, and it is 100% not aligned to the CCSS. Not to mention, why are 4th Graders being asked to write about trying out for the junior high track team? This demand defies their experiences and asks them to imagine a scenario that is well beyond their scope.

Clearly, these questions are poorly designed assessments of 4th graders CCSS learning. (We are setting aside the disagreements we have with those standards in the first place, and simply assessing the PARCC on its utility for measuring what it was intended to measure.)

Rather than debate the CCSS we instead want to expose the tragic reality of the countless public schools organizing their entire instruction around trying to raise students’ PARCC scores.

Without naming any names, I can tell you that schools are disregarding research-proven methods of literacy learning. The “wisdom” coming “down the pipeline” is that children need to be exposed to more complex texts because that is what PARCC demands of them. So children are being denied independent and guided reading time with texts of high interest and potential access and instead are handed texts that are much too hard (frustration level) all year long without ever being given the chance to grow as readers in their Zone of Proximal Development (pardon my reference to those pesky educational researchers like Vygotsky.)

So not only are students who are reading “on grade level” going to be frustrated by these so-called “complex texts,” but newcomers to the U.S. and English Language Learners and any student reading below the proficiency line will never learn the foundational skills they need, will never know the enjoyment of reading and writing from intrinsic motivation, and will, sadly, be denied the opportunity to become a critical reader and writer of media. Critical literacies are foundational for active participation in a democracy.

We can look carefully at one sample to examine the health of the entire system– such as testing a drop of water to assess the ocean. So too, we can use these three PARCC prompts to glimpse how the high stakes accountability system has deformed teaching and warped learning in many public schools across the United States.

In this sample, the system is pathetically failing a generation of children who deserve better, and when they are adults, they may not have the skills needed to engage as citizens and problem-solvers. So it is up to us, those of us who remember a better way and can imagine a way out, to make the case for stopping standardized tests like PARCC from corrupting the educational opportunities of so many of our children.

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.

The NYS Common Core Task Force Report Taken to Task

chalkboard

Some have made the case that Governor Cuomo’s Common Core Task Force Report conveys sweeping recommendations, and that once these recommendations are  implemented by the Board of Regents we will see substantial change in New York’s public education system. This is a pipe dream. A sample of quotes from the Common Core Task Force Report reveal just how far off the mark the report is in addressing the concerns of parents and educators. It creates more smoke and mirrors than change.

“By giving great weight to the foundational skills required in today’s job market, education advocates believe that the Standards have the potential to begin to close the performance gaps that exist largely based on socio-economic differences.”

The Task Force Report does nothing to address the difficulties faced by under-resourced schools that have been labeled “failures” (based on flawed and socio-economically biased test scores). There is no evidence that high standards alone can close the achievement gap, or that arbitrarily more difficult standards without equitable school funding will have any positive effect. It is time to examine the impact of poverty on student learning rather than push experimental standards as a cure-all.

“The Kindergarten Standards could be revised……to provide pre-kindergarten and kindergarten teachers with the flexibility to differentiate instruction for students whose brains are rapidly developing.”

Standards are a progression. Each grade level set of standards is built on the ones from the grade before. While is it laudable that that the Task Force Report recommends revising the grossly inappropriate Common Core kindergarten reading standards, this will require a shift in every subsequent grade level reading benchmark as well.

“We know that students develop at different rates, and we want to ensure that teachers can differentiate and individualize instruction given to our youngest [kindergarten] students that is developmentally appropriate for each individual child— not linked solely to the child’s age.”

At what age is it appropriate to disregard the fact that all children develop at different rates? At what age is it OK to deny children developmentally appropriate instruction? Recommending changes to meet the needs of some children and not others conveys an unwillingness to create meaningful change, as well as a disregard for a research-based approach to elementary education.

“New York State was recently highlighted by the United States Department of Education as being a leader and model for other States in reducing the amount of time spent on testing, including the administration of local assessments.”  

By boasting of New York’s past performance in reducing time spent on testing, the Task Force Report reveals that Task Force members have completely missed the point.

A 2015 study conducted by KT Tobin and Robin Jacobowitz of The Benjamin Center at SUNY New Paltz found that:

“The time for 3-8 testing in NYS, including the test itself and the fixed costs consume approximately 2 percent of the “required annual instructional hours.” This exceeds and is already double the 1 percent standard that was passed by the legislature.”

New York state’s 2014 ban on standardized testing for students in grades K-2 is a similar farce. These banned tests (including NWEA, Aimsweb, Star, and any multiple choice test) are actually permissible if they are for “diagnostic or formative purposes.” Since ANY assessment used for teacher evaluations can also be claimed as diagnostic and/or formative, there really is no ban on subjecting 5,6, and 7 year olds to inappropriate testing. In fact, NYSED lists several K-2 standardized tests as approved assessments for use in teacher evaluations.

Bubble tests

“The new standards must help prepare students for a future that requires workplace and analytic skills, reading non-fiction, and new learning in technology applications. However, the standards must guide curriculum to fulfill these needs while still allowing for other texts that focus on creativity and cultural competency.”

Despite an overwhelming outcry against the prescribed ratio of nonfiction to fiction found in the Common Core, the Task Force Report doubles down on the practice of foisting informational texts on young children with the notion that they will need to read similar texts as adults. Any parent or educator would argue that developing a love of reading and a love of learning trumps all, and furthermore that this is developed by allowing children to select texts based on their interests. Creativity and cultural competency should not merely be “allowed” for young learners; it should be the focus of instruction.

It should be noted here that the Task Force Report fails to address any of the significant parents and educator concerns regarding the appropriateness of the Common Core math standards. Here is an example from Engage NY of an expected response on a 2nd grade Common Core math assessment.

math explanation

 

“(the problem with) Kindergarten Standards is that they fail to include all of the domains of the Pre-Kindergarten Standards such as social and emotional development or approaches to learning….As part of its review, the State should work to incorporate these components into the Kindergarten Standards to encourage curiosity and creativity in our youngest students.”

Teachers do not need standards to encourage curiosity and creativity in their students. A focus on social and emotional development is just as important in 4th grade as it is in kindergarten. At what age is it appropriate to stop educating the whole child? Never. If we do not emphasize social and emotional competencies at every grade level, our children will emerge from school lacking the empathy, self-esteem, and collaborative abilities that they will need to be successful in life.

“Parents repeatedly raised concern over the third grade test being longer than the Regents exams.”

“The annual 3-8 ELA and Mathematics exams are too long….in some elementary-level schools students take between 360 and 540 minutes of tests whereas the SAT is only 225 minutes.”

“New York should follow the pattern set by these states (Texas, New Mexico, North Carolina) and shorten both the number of days and duration of testing sessions for all students in grades 3-8. The State should also formally study whether to further reduce the number of test days and duration of testing sessions for students in grades 3-5.”

North Carolina, Texas, and New Mexico are hardly positive role models for reduction in testing. In North Carolina, testing has been “reduced” to a 1 day, 3-4 hour exam. In Texas, testing has been capped so that the average student sits for 120 minutes of testing with no administration lasting more than 8 hours. And in New Mexico, testing has been reduced by a paltry 15%. In New York, that would reduce 9 hours of testing for 10 year olds to 7.5 hours. For a 5th grade student with special needs, a testing reduction from 18 hours to 15 hours is hardly a relief. The recommendation for yet another  formal study to determine if it is appropriate for children to take tests that rival the SATs in length is ridiculous, and will only delay a significant reduction in testing.

“The State must draft new standards that recognize the balance between encouraging the development of the whole child while maximizing instructional time in school.”

The Task Force Report does an excellent job providing significant evidence that the past three years have been spent focused on harmful and flawed assessments at the expense of teaching and learning. Unfortunately, their recommendations will only lead to superficial change.

How many children will be able to recapture the joy of learning? After three years of ignoring the needs of the child, New York State must focus on restoring the health and wellbeing of our children and our schools, with no “balance” required.

In short, there are no recommendations contained within the task force report that will change the experience of children asked to sit for inappropriate, flawed tests this spring, or that of their teachers, who will continue to be evaluated by test scores (albeit different tests). Without real change, test prep will remain the norm, the curriculum will continue to narrow, schools and students will be labeled failures, and our children will be denied the education they deserve.

Once Again, NYSUT Is Effectively Ineffective

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In December of 2015, NYSUT released a white paper entitled, “NYSUT White Paper on College, Career & Civic Readiness.” This excellent paper is a shining example of what our union can do. Through research and a thorough examination of the issue, this paper exposes the grossly inappropriate manner in which test scores have been interpreted in NYS and have led to a false narrative of failure. This paper is also an example of the crippling ineffectiveness of the current NYSUT leadership and their failure to act on behalf of educators and students.

According to NYS, if our children are not on track from the age of 5 to achieve a 1630 on their SATs, they will not be “career and college ready” (the College Board itself cites a score of 1550 as “college and career ready.”) This benchmark is used to determine proficiency on state tests. In other words, this is the benchmark that has falsely labeled our students, teachers, and schools as failures. It will likely prevent many students from graduating. This was first exposed by Dr.Carol Burris in 2014, and has been written about extensively by Lakeland physics teacher Michael Lillis.

In NYSUT’s white paper, the union finds:

“…serious deficiencies in the state‘s methodology that are promoting developmentally inappropriate test questions and creating a false narrative of failure about New York state‘s students and schools; and recommends actions to establish new, developmentally appropriate standards for college and career readiness.”

During the time this paper was authored and published, NYSUT Vice President Catalina Fortino and AFT President Randi Weingarten presided over Governor Cuomo’s Common Core Task Force, whose report was released on December 10th, 2015. Yet despite NYSUT’s well-researched and evidence-based paper regarding NYS’s damaging “career and college ready” benchmarks, not a single word can be found in the Task Force report regarding these concerns. Perhaps it is not surprising that this white paper (crafted in response to a unanimous vote to oppose the NYS “career and college ready” benchmarks at the 2015 NYSUT RA) was never publicly released nor given a press release. In fact, it is only accessible on the NYSUT website through a secure login.

Not only is the union committing a sin of omission, it appears that they are actively spending member dues to hoodwink educators and quiet the parent-led opt out movement. The UFT recently spent 1.4 million dollars on an ad campaign aimed at convincing educators that all is well, going so far as to say that “test scores won’t be used in teacher evaluations.” NYSUT is actually boasting of its’ recent expenditure of 1 million dollars on a media campaign touting the “sweeping changes” recommended by the Common Core Task Force. Perhaps both the UFT and NYSUT are unaware that by law, 50% of teacher evaluations are still required to be based on test scores (A different, additional test must be used for teacher evaluations while still compelling students to take the flawed state tests) and that Governor Cuomo has refused to amend this law. It is hard to imagine any other justification for over 2 million dollars worth of member-funded false advertising.

Despite the fact that the education law passed last spring must be repealed or amended in order to reduce or eliminate the use of test scores in teacher evaluations, NYSUT has failed to campaign for ANY changes to this law. As of today, NYSUT’s Member Action Center (MAC) includes calls for the Governor to sign a funding provision for CUNY/SUNY and an invitation to screenings of Education Inc, yet there is NO mention of any action calling for an immediate amendment to the Education Transformation Act.

A strong union is what stands between boots on the ground teachers and those who would dismantle public education with little to no regard for educators or, more importantly, students. Unfortunately, the current leadership has shown a commitment to effective ineffectiveness time and time again. Why?

In the spring of 2014, as a founding member of New York State Allies for Public Education (NYSAPE), myself and several others travelled to Albany to meet face to face with most of the NYSUT officers to identify any common ground that would allow us to coordinate our efforts to push back against high stakes testing and the assault on public education. During this meeting, I posed a simple question: Is NYSUT philosophically opposed to the use of test scores to evaluate teachers? As a parent and a dues paying NYSUT member, I was shocked when the NYSUT leaders seated at the table did not answer with a resounding “yes.” We were told that the issue was “complicated” and that according to NYSUT’s scientific polling, “rural areas like the testing.” On that day, NYSAPE declined to form any kind of coalition with NYSUT. It was not until one year later, in the spring of 2015, that NYSUT finally began to support the parent-led opt out movement that has garnered the attention of the media, the legislature, and the Governor.

Why draw attention to these issues now? In light of the looming Friedrich’s decision, what is the wisdom in exposing NYSUT’s effective ineffectiveness? To put them on notice that they must do better and use their influence to effect real change before it is too late.

If our unions are to survive aggressive efforts to destroy them, they can not render themselves ineffective during a time when educators, public schools, and students are under attack. If the union is to survive the current onslaught, its’ members must WANT to pay the dues required to keep them in business. This requires inspired leadership that is not afraid to speak the hard truths and take a stand for those they represent, even when it costs them a seat at the table. And that table is one at which many would argue that they are the ones being served up for dinner.

These are exciting times. The opt out movement has made strong headway, capturing the attention of policymakers and reframing the conversation about public education in New York State. But do not be fooled. The “sweeping changes” being lauded by union officials are nothing more than half-measures aimed at quieting and appeasing parents and educators while doing nothing to change the current “test and punish” system. This spring, students will not experience any relief from tests that are now universally known to be flawed, developmentally inappropriate, and too long. Impoverished schools still face privatization at the hands of biased and inappropriate testing benchmarks, and teachers will still face a 50% test based evaluation. We must continue to opt out, speak out, and hold NYSUT accountable.

Slowly Inching Towards Progress

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Governor Cuomo’s Common Core Task Force report has been released, and while many are celebrating this first step towards saner and more child-centered education policy in New York State, the battle is far from over.

On the positive side, the report suggests that New York State “modify early grade standards so they are age-appropriate.” While most parents and educators would agree with the Task Force’s finding that “education experts agree that children’s brains develop at different rates and not every student will be able to read by the end of kindergarten,” praising this revelation is like praising your doctor for not making you sick. While this is a significant admission from a task force comprised mainly of Common Core supporters, it does not impress.

In some ways, this recommendation seems too good to be true.The standards are a progression. Common sense would dictate that if reading expectations are revised for kindergarten, subsequent  grade level standards and lexile benchmarks will have to be revised as well. Given the constant and almost fetishistic references in the report to “high standards,” perhaps we should remain skeptical of any recommendation that would result in a perceived lowering of standards across the board.

The report goes on to state, “The Kindergarten Standards could be revised….to provide pre-kindergarten and kindergarten teachers with the flexibility to differentiate instruction for students whose brains are rapidly developing.”

Most would argue that ALL teachers should have that flexibility when working with students, yet there are no concrete suggestions in the task force report that signal a true return to child-centered education for all students.

While the report repeatedly mentions the need to maintain high standards, there is little discussion of the non-curricular resources required to ensure that all students can succeed in the face of poverty and lack of adequate funding.The Task Force report’s failure to answer or even raise one of the most pertinent questions is a source of frustration and disappointment. For example, if disadvantaged students were struggling prior to the implementation of the Common Core, how will simply raising the bar increase student achievement?

Most alarming, there are NO new protections for students with disabilities. One of the biggest failings of the CC Task Force was their lack of a recommendation to reduce the duration of tests to ensure that any child with an IEP who receives extended time does not sit for longer than is appropriate for their age. When one considers the fact that NYS will compel many 10-year-olds with disabilities to sit for 18 hours of state testing this spring, this omission is significant.

The Common Core report further misses the mark by failing to address NYSED’s “career and college ready” benchmarks, which are aligned to a score of 1630 on the SAT, a test on which performance is closely aligned with race and income. This benchmark is used to determine passing scores on NYS CC aligned tests. If left in place, the false narrative of failure will continue, disproportionately hurting impoverished students and schools.

While many are celebrating the four year moratorium on the use of CC aligned test scores to evaluate teachers, the truth is that the tests will still count for 50% of teacher evaluations and students will likely be subjected to more tests. If the task force report is implemented, it seems that students will have to take both the NYS CC aligned test and a state approved “local measure” that will be used for the 50% test based portion of teacher evaluations during the moratorium.

Additionally, CC state test scores will still be used to label schools as failing, thrusting them into receivership, and ultimately, privatization. The “test and punish” laws enacted as part of Governor Cuomo’s Education Transformation Act of 2015 still stand, and neither the Common Core Task Force nor Governor Cuomo have given any indication of an intention to rescind or revise the law.

The upshot of all this is that there is absolutely nothing contained in the task force report that will protect children from this year’s administration of flawed, developmentally-inappropriate NYS CC aligned tests. The report does however provide parents with even more reason to refuse the tests. This spring, an unprecedented number of parents will refuse to subject their children to a test that by the Task Force’s own admission has been found by educators and experts to be too long, too difficult, of questionable quality, and lacking in useful information to benefit the individual student.

Ultimately, the opt out movement will continue to grow until test scores are permanently decoupled from consequences for schools and teachers and until the tests are appropriate in terms of content and length. Parents and educators will accept nothing less.

We must demand that the The Education Transformation Act of 2015 be immediately amended or rescinded. While we have seen progress today, failure to change these laws ensures that our children will continue to receive a test-driven education.

Children > Educator and Principal Evaluations

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Recently I was surprised to hear stories of a handful of school building leaders, both in my own community and in other parts of the state, who have appealed to parents to reverse their decision to refuse New York State Common Core testing in grades 3-8. In these cases the basis of the appeal is not any perceived benefit for students but rather a claim that opt out hurts their own evaluations (which are derived from student test scores) as well as teacher evaluations. In light of the growing number of school boards, superintendents, and principals who have taken a bold stance against high stakes testing, flawed learning standards, and the misuse of test data, these seemingly self-serving appeals are surprising.

No one wants to be deemed to be less than “effective” at his or her job. But when the validity of the methodology used to generate these effectiveness ratings has been debunked by scholarly organizations such as the American Statistical Association, how much stock should any educator put into these scores? Should we put children in harm’s way and give in to poor and senseless education policy in order to chance a more favorable score? Remember, there is NO consensus as to whether or not opt out negatively impacts teacher or principal growth scores. In fact, there are many educators who received highly effective ratings despite high numbers of opt outs. This is because there is no rhyme or reason to VAM (Value Added Model), the volatile and flawed formula used to determine the “growth scores” in teacher and principal evaluations. The Commissioner of Education herself recently agreed with a teacher on a panel who pointed out that these growth scores seem random in nature.

It is clear that these labels are meaningless. It is also clear that unless this system is overturned, the teaching profession as we know it will cease to exist and children will no longer experience the child-centered and well rounded education that most parents want for their children. Despite commissions, task forces, and promises to “listen to parents and educators,” it is clear that NYSED is moving full steam ahead with their testing agenda. Just this week Commissioner Elia announced to attendees of the NYS School Boards Association’s annual convention that the majority of the 2 billion dollar technology bond passed last year will be used to purchase the technological infrastructure needed to move all schools to computerized testing.

Given the fact that many districts have applied for waivers that would exempt them from having to adopt the new APPR (the evaluation system for teachers and principals) this year, many educators will not be affected by the 50% test based evaluations until next year. Once the new APPR is implemented, teachers deemed “ineffective” for two years in a row will lose their teaching certifications. Since a school district cannot employ a teacher who is not certified, a district would have no choice but to terminate an uncertified teacher. While this scenario is real and within the realm of possibility, it is unlikely, especially in well-resourced school districts.

If teachers are rated “effective” or “highly effective” based on classroom observation (which is mainly conducted by the building principal), the lowest rating they can receive is “developing.” While most teachers would prefer to be labeled “effective” rather than “developing,” a “developing” label does not endanger a teacher’s job and most importantly, does not lead to any loss of certification. It should be noted here that within the observation portion of APPR, principals are able to afford their teachers a great deal of protection from receiving an ineffective rating.

But I would argue that there are more important questions to consider. For example, what is in the best interest of the children? Not just your child or mine, but all children? As parents, as educators, and as a community, we must be willing to take a stand for impoverished schools, schools with disproportionately high percentages of children with special needs and English Language learners, schools that suffer under the crippling weight of the “persistently struggling” label while NYS continues to under-fund and under-resource them. We must be willing to take a stand against a receivership model that uses scores from discriminatory, biased assessments to close schools or turn them over to private control. We must ask ourselves, how would we feel if this were happening in our own community?

Hundreds of thousands of New York parents have made it clear that their children will not be used as tools to further the agenda of those who wish to privatize and standardize our schools, narrow the curriculum to test-able subjects and standards, and turn a profit on the backs of students. My own family will not patronize a practice that harms the most vulnerable students and communities in the state. If anyone asks me to allow my child to take part in flawed and harmful state tests for the sake of an adult’s job evaluation, I will suggest that he or she join the fight to protect your child, my child, and all children in New York State. We will not take a step backwards, acquiesce, or submit – this fight is too important.