Two weeks ago I wrote a column entitled “A Call for Accountability”. The article focused on a letter from the Minority members of the Board to New York State Commissioner, MaryEllen Elia requesting the removal of Carl Paladino from the Buffalo Board of Education. We cited actions and behaviors by Mr. Paladino that have systematically demonstrated blatant disregard for education law governing individual board member authority and a lack of respect and civility that contributes to dysfunction and low morale in the District. There is no scarcity of documentation regarding these actions as they have been thoroughly reported in the media and in Mr. Paladino’s own publications. We have been joined by others, who have also written letters to the Commissioner as well as a grassroots group that has called for Mr. Paladino’s removal. Yet, officials, community leaders, fellow board members and others have remained silent and ignored a growing body of egregious acts.
We live in an era of accountability and a culture that brooks “no excuses”. Does being accountable, however, only apply to some and not others? Take our schools, for example, and by extension our students, who are judged by accountability measures that determine categories labeling them, “failing, priority, focus, or good standing.” Recently these labels changed to include “persistently struggling and struggling”. For Buffalo schools, the “good standing” ones are in the minority. And just within the last few months nearly half of our schools have now been identified as “struggling” and “persistently struggling”. These designations are based on several years of accountability data that purport to identify long-standing lack of achievement in these schools.
Last week the State Education Department released the results of the ELA (English Language Arts) and Math standardized tests that are the holy grail of accountability for our schools. These tests are given to students in grades 3 – 8. With few exceptions all students regardless of special education needs or English Language fluency take the same exams. Since the 2012-13 school year these tests have been aligned with the new Common CORE Learning Standards. Educational experts have raised many questions about these high stakes tests; they are developmentally inappropriate, some of the answers are designed to “trick” test takers, the exams are not diagnostic so teachers can’t use individual results to customize lessons to address a student’s specific needs, some children are stressed and demoralized by the hours-long testing experience, teachers are being pushed to teach to the test leaving less time for art and music, for example and tying test scores to teacher evaluations is being contested as not valid.
Opposition to use of these tests has been growing in the State. This year over 200,000 students, appropriately 20 percent of the student population in the State, refused to take these tests for the foregoing reasons. As a result, we should question the validity of these tests even more. (I encourage readers to take a look at these tests. Sample tests are available on the EngageNY website.)
Further, the test results over the last three years should raise questions about their use as the accountability measure determining the fate of our schools. For comparison, the ELA tests resulted in the following statewide percentage of students who scored proficient (level 3 or 4) on the tests.
· 2012-2013 - 31.1 2013-2014 – 30.6 2014-15 – 31.3
According to a press release from the State Commissioner, “overall, students statewide have made incremental progress in ELA and Math since 2013, the first year assessments aligned to the more rigorous learning standards…..” Note, however, that the 2015 score represents less than a 1 percent gain. Math scores ranged from 31.1% in 2013; 36.2% in 2014 and 38.1% in 2015, about a 2 percentage point increase.
Buffalo’s scores on these exams for the same periods are as follows for ELA:
· 2012-2013 -11.5 2013-2014 – 11.9 2014-15 – 11.9
Our math percentages were: 2012-2013 – 9.6 2013-2014 – 13.1 2014-15 – 15.1
I am not making “excuses” for these scores as I know that we have a literacy problem in our schools that is serious and must be addressed urgently, but if the State Education Commissioner can describe the statewide scores as showing “incremental progress” then why can’t Buffalo be cited as showing “incremental progress” given the challenges that we face? Why are we the poster district for schools in crisis when Rochester’s School District posted ELA results:
· 2012-2013 – 5.4 2013-2014 – 5.5 2014-15 – 4.7
Carol Burris, recently retired award-winning New York state high school principal, also writes that statewide “Only 4.4 percent of all English language learners and 5.7 percent of students with disabilities were proficient in English Language Arts.”
Given the numbers of students who opted out of these tests, the question being asked is whether this year’s results can even be considered valid. Burris writes “Three years of data make it crystal clear that the New York State Education Department is giving inappropriate tests, which are, for most students, a prolonged and arduous exercise in multiple guess.” The validity question is particularly relevant to Buffalo as these tests have been used to determine the fate of our 25 struggling and persistently struggling schools. They will be managed by the Superintendent Receiver this year and next and must show “demonstrable progress” doing that period to avoid the appointment of an outside receiver by the State.
The Commissioner is now looking for ways to punish school districts that have large numbers of opt-outs. Of course the justification for any sanctions will be to enforce accountability. So, it all comes back to accountability! Accountability and no excuses! To date, the Commissioner has not responded or even acknowledged our letter and I presume those of others who wrote on the same subject. We are calling for accountability to be applied equitably. We’re still waiting and we’re still demanding a response.