An update on testing and opt-out

As we are working on negotiating a new APPR plan per the revised education law, it’s time to take a look at the state of state testing that underpins the whole thing. Here’s a quick summary of some of the stories and blog posts from the past few weeks.

Test Results

The state released test score data mid-August. Reports that there was some growth in ELA scores only served to highlight how mathematically deficient most news outlets are. Increases of 1-2% are simply not statistically significant. As Carol Burris noted, “At this rate of increase, it will take about 70 years for all New York students to meet both New York Common Core proficiency cut scores.”

(If you’re curious how SWR did, click here for Wading River and here for Prodell – but seriously, why bother? It’s truly meaningless data)

Even more telling (and not the least bit surprising to anyone who actually works with children), is that as inappropriate as the testing is for the general population, it’s far worse for our most at-risk students; the achievement gap for special ed students and minority students is widening.

Opt-Out Results

The final tally showed that about 20% of all 3-8 students in NY State (roughly 200,000) opted out of one or both tests. While that fell a little short of NYSAPE’s goal of 250,000, it represents a growth of 400% vs. the year before. Within this number are some huge disparities. In NYC, which accounts for 40% of the state in terms of 3-8 students, only 2% opted out.

The Response to Opt-Out

NYSAPE is pushing hard to make sure that that this coming year’s opt-out numbers will be even stronger. They are encouraging parents to get their opt-out letters in now. On the other side, Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia is trying to do everything in her power (and some things out of her power) to stop the opt-out movement. She initially had said she was going to try to withhold Title 1 funding from districts with high opt-outs. Fortunately, Governor Cuomo threw her under the bus and said he didn’t think districts with high opt-outs should be sanctioned, and after the USDOE stated they would leave decisions about penalties to the states, Regents Chancellor Tisch announced that districts with high opt-outs would not lose funding. (as a side note, it is insane that that this was even considered – taking funding away from the neediest students when, in most cases, those students are least likely to be the ones who actually opted out?????)

Commissioner Elia is not giving up, however. She has been a vocal opponent of the opt-out movement, calling it “unreasonable”, and although she recently did acknowledge that parents do have the right to opt-out, she is putting together a “tool kit,” (or as Assemblyman Jim Tedesco calls it, a “goon squad“) for Superintendents to implement to combat opt-outs. Most notably, she has signaled a desire to go after teachers if opt-out continues: ““I am absolutely shocked if, and I don’t know that this happened, but if any educators supported and encouraged opt-outs. I think it’s unethical.” More on that below, but first a few other responses to the Opt-out movement.

  • Assemblyman Al Graf has started a petition to have MaryEllen Elia fired.
  • Carol Burris responds to Commissioner Elia, saying it’s unethical NOT to speak out.
  • Melissa McMullan, Comsewogue teacher and SWR parent points out that if there are ethical violations here, they are on the part of NYSED
  • Regents Chancellor Tisch, who has previously argued that opting out was a terrible mistake and likened opting to refusing vaccines, nonetheless says  “If I was the mother of a student with a certain type of disability, I would think twice before I allowed my child to sit through an exam that was incomprehensible to them”
  • Just prior to the start of school, Pat-Med Superintendent Michael Hynes sent a letter to all of his teachers telling them he didn’t care one bit about their test-based APPR scores. He followed that with a letter to parents informing them of their right to opt-out and making sure they know there is no penalty for refusing the tests.

What Next?

It will be very interesting to see how this plays out. Commissioner Elia has a lot riding on stemming the opt-out tide. Now that she’s acknowledged she can’t force parents to allow their kids to take the tests, her only option is through educators. Her use of the phrase “I think it’s unethical.” is very telling ethical violations are one path to a 3020A hearing and her choice of words was no accident. Does she plan to have NYSED go after individual teachers or superintendents who are accused of promoting opt out? It seems unfathomable, as the backlash would likely be huge, but so far NYSED, the Regents, and the Governor have not hesitated to demonize teachers without worrying about the impact.

The bottom line is this: As a parent you can opt your own kids out (and NYSUT supports your doing so) but as a classroom teacher you should avoid discussing opt-out in any form in your classroom and should not, at any time, say anything that can be construed as promoting it to your students’ parents.

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Another Fond Farewell

As you may have read, in The New York Times or elsewhere, NYSED has dumped Pearson and awarded the contract for developing state assessments to Questar Assessments, a relatively small Minneapolis based company. 
Some are viewing this as a great first step, but this is a stretch at best.  We’ll get back to that. First the bright side.

 

According to NYSUT, the new agreement includes a “promise to involve New York teachers in every step of the test-development process.”  This addresses a major complaint about these tests – that the questions are clearly not written by people who actually work with children. 

 
With all the talk about “accountability” in education, it’s good to see the term applied in an authentic context. As Karen Magee said, “Pearson offered a bad product and today Pearson got fired. Teachers have called for this for years.”  Pearson’s errors are legendary, and perhaps that will be at least one piece that will improve.
 
HOWEVER…
 
As many of us know, there is a world of difference between teachers being a legitimate part of the process vs. sitting teachers at the table just for the purpose of saying “there were teachers involved.”  NYSED has never said that they agree with educator complaints (the questions are developmentally inappropriate, unnecessarily complex, or invalid measures of the standards), let alone that more teacher input would address these complaints. So there is much reason to be suspicious that bringing more teachers in will actually make the tests any better – NYSED still has final say over the test content. 
 
And as far as errors go, Perdido Street School blog reports that Questar, as a company, is a mess, so we really shouldn’t be expecting better results. “Test scorers treated like cattle, imprecise scoring, managers who can’t answer scorers questions, scanning glitches, incompetent schedulers – sounds even better. Meet the new company for 3rd-8th grade testing. Sounds a lot like the old company, doesn’t it?”
 
And finally, let’s address the idea that this is a good first step. As many bloggers and writers have pointed out, changing vendors does nothing to actually change the laws that require students to spend time taking meaningless tests, force schools to narrow curriculum, and will result in good teachers losing their jobs. In fact, there is a reason to believe that it will have just the opposite effect. Mary Ellen Elia, the new State Ed. Commissioner, said at least some of the right things: “[She] hopes the new assessments will take less time, and that teachers will have access to their students’ results quicker so they can use the information to drive classroom instruction.”
 
But she also had this to say: “I am not a person who believes that children shouldn’t be tested. Life is one big test. We have to get to the point where people are at peace with that.”
 
Anytime someone answers a question that hasn’t been asked, you need to think about what the real purpose is. Nobody is saying that children shouldn’t be tested, but this allows her to position critics as being against all testing, as opposed to inappropriate high stakes tests. You can expect her to use this next Spring to attempt to undercut the opt-out movement. Watch for comments along the lines of “We’ve got rid of the company that was causing errors, we got teachers involved in the process, we’re releasing the data earlier, and we relaxed the gag order, so the only opposition to testing now comes form people who don’t think kids should take tests and teachers who don’t want to be evaluated.”
 
You can also expect her, or others, to use Pearson’s firing itself against us: “We fired Pearson because they weren’t doing their jobs, but teachers don’t want to be held to the same standard.”
 
This gambit will fail. Parents and teachers in New York are way smarter than that.

Latest News

A few news items of interest:

 
 
Supreme Court to hear “Friedrichs vs. California”
Last week the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it will hear the “Friedrichs vs. California Teachers” case. The case concerns the requirement that teachers must contribute to unions even if they do not agree with some of the union’s activities and do not want to join.
 
If the court finds against the union, the effects will be devastating, as “unions would be in the unfair position of still representing workers, negotiating on their behalf and improving their working conditions without the law’s safety net requiring that all who benefit share in the costs. Dues-paying members would have to pay for the equal representation provided to non-members.” It would ultimately have the entire country follow the path of Wisconsin, which has, as expected, seen union membership decline and workers losing benefits and wages.
 
The decision is expected to come early in 2016, and while it could go either way, the safe money is on an anti-union ruling. For more on this topic, see NYSUT’s summary of the case or this article from Slate Magazine.
 
 
ESEA Re-authorization
The House and Senate began debating re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act this week. The House and Senate each have their own bills, which are, on the whole, very similar. Both would eliminate the AYP (annual yearly progress) aspects of No Child Left Behind, and would reduce the power of the US Department of Education, but would still maintain the requirement for annual testing. (Read more about the bills in this article from the Washington Post.) This again becomes one of those issues where one has to ask if it is better to support a bill that is wrong in many ways but much better than what we have, or should we hold out for a re-write that truly fixes what’s wrong. Knowing that Obama has indicated he will veto any bill that does not include annual testing certainly plays into that. Here’s why Carol Burris is supporting the Senate’s, “Every Child Achieves” bill, flawed as it may be. 
 
 
Spend Some Time in the Hamptons with Cuomo this Weekend
This coming Saturday, hedge fund manager and charter school advocate Daniel Loeb is hosting a $5,000/ plate fund raiser for Andrew Cuomo in East Hampton. A number of pro-labor groups, including various NYSUT locals, will be there to express dissatisfaction at the “hedge fund control of government.”  The central meeting point is at St. Michael’s Lutheran Church in Amagansett. A bus will be coming that will pick people up in Hempstead and in Brentwood. The bus will then pick up everyone at St. Michaels and bring them to the rally point.  Please contact Jeff Friedman at jfriedma@nysutmail.org or call him at (516) 670-7834 to RSVP and with any questions. RSVP is a must because of spacing.
 
Farewell Ken Wagner 
Ken Wagner, former Prodell Principal, current Deputy Commissioner of NYSED, and well known Kool-Aid connoisseur, has just been chosen to be the Education Commissioner of Rhode Island. While many of us have fond memories of his time at SWR, his statewide contributions have left a bit to be desired, to say the least. Let’s hope his replacement is someone who is more willing to listen to the voices of educators.