pause button

New York state officials announce there will be no changes to state exams until 2019

PHOTO: Monica Disare
State Commissioner MaryEllen Elia

Those seeking changes to New York’s standardized tests will have to wait at least two more years, State Education Department officials announced Monday.

The decision, which will affect grades 3-8 English and math exams, was presented by state officials as a chance to allow for stable, annual comparisons between test scores while officials consider a more dramatic shake-up to tests in 2019. But the move is likely to draw ire from parents across the state, roughly 20 percent of whom opted their children out of last year’s the exams in protest, demanding major changes to assessments.

The state considered making larger testing adjustments — including shifting from three-day tests to two — but determined it would not be possible to do so while keeping results reliable, said State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia.

“Our expert analysis determined it would not be feasible to do that and still be able to have meaningful growth comparisons for students, schools or statewide,” Elia said. “We will reexamine shortening the testing days as part of designing the tests for the state’s new learning standards.”

The state made a number of changes to assessments this year in response to parents’ concerns about over-testing, which inspired a robust boycott movement. Last year for the first time, students had unlimited time to take the tests and sat for shortened assessments.

Average scores improved, but the adjustments caused a problem: They precluded an apples-to-apples comparison between years. That meant it was difficult to examine whether students gained knowledge in English and math. In New York City, some leaders ignored the state’s caveats about making comparisons between years and reported the scores as a major victory.

To avoid recreating these problems, officials decided they could not continue making changes over the next two years. Even Chancellor Betty Rosa, who said last year she would opt her own child out of state assessments, expressed her support for leaving the exams unchanged.

“Maintaining the current testing for now will allow us to measure student development over time,” Rosa said.

Leaders of the statewide opt-out movement made it clear last year that the commissioner’s efforts to revamp tests did not satisfy their concerns — and sent that message on Monday.

“As the NYS testing system continues to be in turmoil, keeping tests the same length is essentially a green light for parents to continue opting out and it will fuel the movement to grow,” said Lisa Rudley, a founding member of New York State Allies for Public Education, which helped lead the statewide opt-out movement.

The state teachers union said the decision shows a “disregard” for the concerns of parents and educators. “Despite a fierce outcry against the length of state standardized tests by parents and educators, the State Education Department is punting on the changes needed to move forward. So much for listening,” the statement read, urging the department to reconsider its decision.

Such resistance could become even more difficult in the coming years, since the new federal education law requires 95 percent of students to take state tests, with consequences to be determined by the states themselves. Regent Roger Tilles, who represents opt-out hotbed Long Island, brought up this challenge at the Board of Regents meeting.

“I can almost assure that without some real changes, the parents’ group won’t necessarily understand [the lack of changes],” Tilles said. “We should anticipate at least a couple more years of difficulty in getting to the 95 percent.”

Editor’s Note: After sending a press release on Monday stating that state exams in grades 3-8 ELA and math would not be changed in 2017 or 2018, Chancellor Betty Rosa said Tuesday the board is willing to discuss changes in 2018. Education Department spokesperson Emily DeSantis said, “Given the recent events of the past month and our discussions yesterday, we are making no decisions right now about the 2018 assessments.” 

more digging

Kingsbury High added to list of Memphis schools under investigation for grade changing

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Kingsbury High School was added to a list of schools being investigated by an outside firm for improper grade changes. Here, Principal Terry Ross was featured in a Shelby County Schools video about a new school budget tool.

Another Memphis high school has been added to the list of schools being investigated to determine if they made improper changes to student grades.

Adding Kingsbury High School to seven others in Shelby County Schools will further delay the report initially expected to be released in mid-June.

But from what school board Chairwoman Shante Avant has heard so far, “there haven’t been any huge irregularities.”

“Nothing has surfaced that gives me pause at this point,” Avant told Chalkbeat on Thursday.

The accounting firm Dixon Hughes Goodman is conducting the investigation.

This comes about three weeks after a former Kingsbury teacher, Alesia Harris, told school board members that Principal Terry Ross instructed someone to change 17 student exam grades to 100 percent — against her wishes.

Shelby County Schools said the allegations were “inaccurate” and that the grade changes were a mistake that was self-reported by an employee.

“The school administration immediately reported, and the central office team took the necessary actions and promptly corrected the errors,” the district said in a statement.

Chalkbeat requested a copy of the district’s own initial investigation the day after Harris spoke at the board’s June meeting, but district officials said they likely would not have a response for Chalkbeat until July 27.

Harris said that no one from Dixon Hughes Goodman has contacted her regarding the investigation as of Thursday.

The firm’s investigation initially included seven schools. Kingsbury was not among them. Those seven schools are:

  • Kirby High
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Bolton High
  • Westwood High
  • White Station High
  • Trezevant High
  • Memphis Virtual School

The firm’s first report found as many as 2,900 failing grades changed during four years at nine Memphis-area schools. At the request of the board, two schools were eliminated: one a charter managed by a nonprofit, and a school outside the district. The firm said at the time that further investigation was warranted to determine if the grade changes were legitimate.

The $145,000 investigation includes interviews with teachers and administrators, comparing teachers’ paper grade books to electronic versions, accompanying grade change forms, and inspecting policies and procedures for how school employees track and submit grades.

Since the controversy started last year, the district has restricted the number of employees authorized to make changes to a student’s report card or transcript, and also requires a monthly report from principals detailing any grade changes.

Silver Lining Playbook

Memphis’ youngest students show reading gains on 2018 state tests — and that’s a big deal

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
A student works on reading comprehension skills at Lucie E Campbell Elementary School in Memphis and Shelby County Schools.

Those working to improve early literacy rates in Shelby County Schools got a small morale boost Thursday as newly released scores show the district’s elementary school students improved their reading on 2018 state tests.

The percentage of Memphis elementary-age students considered proficient in reading rose by 3 points to almost one-fourth of the district’s children in grades 3 through 5. That’s still well below the state average, and Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said “we obviously have a long way to go.”

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has overseen Tennessee’s largest public school district since 2013.

Strengthening early literacy has been a priority for the Memphis district, which views better reading skills as crucial to predicting high school graduation and career success. To that end, Shelby County Schools has expanded access to pre-K programs, adjusted reading curriculum, and made investments in literacy training for teachers.

Hopson said the payoff on this year’s TNReady scores was a jump of almost 5 percentage points in third-grade reading proficiency.

“It was about five years ago when we really, really, really started pushing pre-K, and those pre-K kids are now in the third grade. I think that’s something that’s really positive,” Hopson said of the gains, adding that third-grade reading levels are an important indicator of future school performance.

TNReady scores for Shelby County Schools, which has a high concentration of low-performing schools and students living in poverty, were a mixed bag, as they were statewide.

Math scores went up in elementary, middle, and high schools in Tennessee’s largest district. But science scores went down across the board, and the percentage of high school students who scored proficient in reading dropped by 4 percentage points.

The three charts below illustrate, by subject, the percentages of students who performed on track or better in elementary, middle, and high schools within Shelby County Schools. The blue bars reflect the district’s most recent scores, the black bars show last year’s scores, and the yellow bars depict this year’s statewide averages.

Hopson said he was unsure how much the scores of older students — all of whom tested online — were affected by technical problems that hampered Tennessee’s return this year to computerized testing.

“From what people tell me, kids either didn’t try as hard in some instances or didn’t take it seriously,” Hopson told reporters. “We’ll never know what the real impact is, but we have to accept the data that came from these tests.”

But students in two of the district’s school improvement initiatives — the Innovation Zone and the Empowerment Zone — showed progress. “We’re going to double down on these strategies,” Hopson said of the extra investments and classroom supports.

In the state-run Achievement School District, or ASD, which oversees 30 low-performing schools in Memphis, grades 3 through 8 saw an uptick in scores in both reading and math. But high schoolers scored more than 3 percentage points lower in reading and also took a step back in science.

The ASD takes over schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent and assigns them to charter operators to improve. But in the five years that the ASD has been in Memphis, its scores have been mostly stagnant.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said she and new ASD Superintendent Sharon Griffin are reviewing the new data to determine next steps.

“We are seeing some encouraging momentum shifts,” McQueen said.

Chalkbeat illustrator Sam Park contributed to this story.