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.

Advertisements

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

bullet aid image

*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.

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.