Archive for November, 2015

What Leaders Think About the Common Core and State Assessments

November 22nd, 2015 by Robert Lowry

Here is the introduction to our latest report, What Leaders Think About the Common Core and State Assessments:

Virtually all of New York State’s school superintendents – 96 percent – report that controversies over state education policies have had a negative impact upon their schools.  That is one of the central findings in a survey conducted by the New York State Council of School Superintendents in August and early September, 2015.

By a wide margin, superintendents responding to the Council survey view the Common Core Learning Standards as having a positive impact on education:  79 percent see a positive impact from the English language arts standards; 77 percent report a positive impact from the standards for mathematics.  But an even larger majority of superintendents – 81 percent – favors at least some changes to the standards.  Only 5 percent endorse complete revision, however.

Most superintendents regard concerns over state testing, teacher evaluations, and linkage of the two as the primary sources of the controversies diverting energy and attention from teaching and learning.  So while changes to the standards are needed, that action alone would not resolve parent and public alarm about the direction of education in New York.

By a 70 percent to 20 percent margin, responding superintendents disagree that the grades 3 through 8 state assessments provide information useful for evaluating teachers.  They are divided over the value of those tests in gauging whether individual students are on a trajectory to meet high school graduation requirements:  46 percent agree; 41 percent disagree.

But in open-ended comments, many superintendents offer thoughtful explanations of how their schools have used state tests to identify gaps in their instructional programs, one of the original purposes of state testing.  By 61 to 28 percent, superintendents agree the tests yield information useful for that goal.

Looking back
State learning standards are not new, nor are state tests.

Standards serve to define what students should know, understand, and be able to do as they progress through school and to leave school with a diploma.  They are a foundation upon which curricula, instruction, and assessments are then built.  New York’s prior English language arts standards were adopted in 1996; the last mathematics standards were approved in 2005.

Similarly, New York has administered grades 3 through 8 state assessments since 2006, due to the federal No Child Left Behind Act, and had 4th and 8th grade assessments before that.  It has had Regents Examinations since 1865.  Yet deep conflict over testing did not begin until the 2012-13 school year.

Why?  What changed?

First, schools in New York did add tests to comply with state law and federal requirements to build student performance measures into teacher evaluation.

Launching Common Core-aligned grades 3 through 8 assessments in spring 2013 incited more controversy.  Reports were common that traditionally successful students struggled to finish the tests and students with disabilities simply gave up, some in tears.  Later, when scores were released, educators questioned whether the tests accurately measured students’ proficiency.

The simultaneous start of Common Core-aligned assessments and new teacher evaluations incorporating growth scores tied to those assessments in 2012-13 was doubly damaging.  First, it compounded stress for teachers, at once changing both what they were expected to teach and how their teaching would be evaluated.  Second, the massive compliance exercise of implementing the new evaluation system diverted superintendents from the leadership work of explaining “the why” behind the new standards to their communities.

Last, with more experience, more weaknesses in the standards themselves have been identified.

Looking ahead
Lamenting the impact of policy controversies on their schools, one superintendent wrote, “Terrible place to be put as a district:  between the state and the parents.”  Another asked, “Is it too late to get parents back on board?”

Superintendents responding to the Council’s survey are not unanimous in their appraisals of the value and impact of state education reforms.  But the findings do point to a way forward.

First, state standards and assessments are necessary.

New York’s constitution promises, “…a system of free common schools, wherein all the children of this state may be educated.”  Learning standards help define what all children must be offered by their schools if that promise is to be kept.  Our survey indicates most superintendents see the Common Core standards as promising, but not perfect.  They support some revisions to the standards, chiefly to address criticisms about developmental appropriateness in some grades, but not a complete overhaul.

But whether one favors adjustments or an overhaul, similar steps must follow.  If the Common Core were repealed today, what would teachers teach tomorrow?  Changes, great or small, will take time to thoughtfully design and carefully implement.

Traditionally, the state’s elementary and middle school assessments were used to evaluate strengths and weaknesses in general instructional programs, particularly their alignment with the expectations defined in state standards. That purpose remains necessary.  Ideally, the assessments should also indicate how well individual students are progressing and whether they are on track to meet graduation expectations.

Surveys of parents and students have revealed a willingness to support assessments – if it is clear they can help improve instruction.[1]   New York City teacher union president Michael Mulgrew said, “We can’t say let’s get rid of all tests. That’s a diagnostic we need. It’s like telling a carpenter we’re taking your tape measure away.”[2]

Open-ended comments submitted by superintendents reveal consensus on steps toward a better state assessment system.  Many of the recommendations are familiar and some are now underway:  shorten the tests, get more information back to schools and families faster, assure the involvement of New York educators in test development.  A few point to computer-based, adaptive testing as a pivotal reform, essential to shortening the tests, improving their timeliness, and generally strengthening their usefulness in improving instruction.  There is wide sentiment that the link between state tests and teacher evaluations must be suspended.

A forthcoming report will examine superintendent perceptions of the state’s teacher evaluation requirements.

Debates over matters of public policy are now so often inflamed and any leader who steps forward with solutions invites criticism.  Condemning is easier than consensus building.  But if nothing is ever good enough, nothing can change, and nothing will ever improve.

The report that follows summarizes perspectives of the professional school leaders who will be called to make whatever new policies finally emerge work for all the children they are intended to benefit.

[1] Make Assessment Matter. Northwest Evaluation Association, Apr. 2014. Web. 02 Nov. 2015.  Also, Student Testing in America’s Great City Schools: An Inventory and Preliminary Analysis. Council of Great City Schools, October 2015.
[2] “Mulgrew: It’s helpful to have a foe in City Hall, but better to have an ally.”  Chalkbeat New York, October 21, 2015.  Web.  5 Nov. 2015.

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Four Key Numbers in School Finance

November 11th, 2015 by Robert Lowry

This post offers some thoughts on “big picture” school finance considerations for next year and beyond.  It concludes with a link to some district specific data.

In presentations to superintendents and others around the state over the last few months, I’ve said that four numbers are critical to understanding school finance in New York State:

  • 2
  • 6
  • 0
  • 434

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