Wednesday, December 30, 2015

When it comes to Urban Students; the Commissioner Ignores Invalid High Stakes Tests

This morning’s Buffalo News article (December 30, 2015) touted State Education Commissioner Elia’s decision granting unbridled receivership powers to Buffalo Schools Superintendent Kriner Cash.  Thanks to the Commissioner’s quick and decisive action, Superintendent Cash has been given unprecedented authority to circumvent the Teachers’ Contract and Board approval to institute any changes he deems necessary in 20 “receivership” schools.  This action is being hailed by reformers as a “victory” that will benefit the students in the schools, which have been targeted “persistently struggling” and “struggling”. 

As an aside, the reporter raised an issue that I wrote about two weeks ago; related to high stakes tests and receivership.  On December 10th, Governor Cuomo announced the findings and final report of the Common Core Task Force.  Appointed by the Governor, this group proposed a number of recommendations to address what they determined to be the flawed implementation of the State’s Common Core Learning Standards, including the Common Core aligned standardized ELA and Math exams.  According to the Task Force, for numerous reasons, the validity of these tests was deemed to be equally questionable.  As a result, the Task Force recommended that “the results from assessments aligned to the current Common Core Standards, as well as the updated standards, shall only be advisory and not be used to evaluate the performance of individual teachers or students.”  The Task Force did not suggest how this recommendation will be implemented but did offer a time frame, advising no use of the results from the tests until 2019-20.  In fact the “moratorium” on the use of the test results extends from the 2012-13 school year to 2019-20.

The Board of Regents quickly accepted the recommendations and voted to suspend use of these tests as proposed by the Task Force. Historically, these high stakes tests have played a critical role in assessing accountability - that is judging the achievement of students, schools and school districts by the State Education Department.  They were also the object of the grass-roots “opt-out” movement which succeeded in producing an astounding 220,000 students (about 20 percent of students statewide), who refused to take these tests this year. This movement deserves considerable credit for the pressure it exerted on the State, which contributed to the retreat from these inappropriate tests and their equally inappropriate uses.

Yet, in the face of these major developments, Commissioner Elia refuses to discuss how the Task Force recommendations regarding the tests impact decisions about the receivership schools. The Buffalo reporter re-iterated my concerns by stating that “those same tests, however, were a major factor in determining which schools were placed in receivership.”  The article also noted that the Commissioner has been “dismissive” of this issue.  The Task Force recommendation declared that students should be held harmless from the results of these tests.  However, this apparently doesn’t apply to urban students. These students continue to be judged, evaluated and labeled by the results of invalid measures.  There has been no change in the approach of the State Education Department with respect to the “receivership schools”, as recommended by the Task Force and dictated by sound pedagogical reasoning.   Consequently, in light of the Task Force recommendation, how can some children be held harmless as a result of their test scores and others not?  This raises the question of disparate treatment.     

Furthermore, when the Commissioner brushes off the issue of the impact of the Regent’s decision to accept the Task Force recommendation to make these tests “advisory”, the question must be asked of the Regents as well as the Commissioner:

How does she justify granting sweeping receivership “powers” to the Superintendent for schools which have been labeled as “struggling” and “persistently struggling”, based in great part on invalid tests?

More to come on this subject.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

In Spite of the Governor's Task Force Recommendations Receivership Lumbers On

So, the Governor’s Common Core Task Force recommended a moratorium on the use of high stakes tests (ELA and Math) since the inception of the State’s adoption of the Common Core Learning Standards until 2019.  The Task Force recommended that children and teachers should not have the results of these tests used to evaluate their performance – at least that seemed to be what they were recommending.  By extension, these test results also have been used to determine individual school performance.  The Board of Regents quickly accepted the Task Force recommendation.  Nonetheless, the results of these tests have been used and continue to be used to define school accountability, e.g. persistently struggling, struggling schools and schools in good standing. With no analysis or conversation about how the recommendation and accompanying Regents decision impacts Receivership, the Commissioner is moving forward to enforce (actually double down) on receivership.  For a second time the Commissioner has given Buffalo’s Superintendent Receiver the authority to breach the teachers’ contract, aka, exercise his receivership “POWERS”. (December 22, 2015)

This decision effectively contradicts the Task Force Recommendation, as applied to urban school children.  The question I’m asking the Regents and the Commissioner:  How does the moratorium and the promise to hold students harmless as a result of the “poor implementation” of the Common Core high stakes tests help these children or impact their Districts?  Or, as others have suggested, was the Task Force experience just a political sleight of hand and an exercise in the use of smoke and mirrors?


Tuesday, December 15, 2015

New York's Moratorium on Standardized Tests: Implications for Buffalo's OCR Complaint

Communication to Buffalo Superintendent Kriner Cash:

Dear Dr. Cash:

As you know the District received the Report by the Civil Rights Project and its lead consultant, Dr. Gary Orfield, in response to the Resolution Agreement with the U.S. Department of Education, New York Office for Civil Rights (OCR Case No. 02-14-1077) in May 2015.  Since that time, the District has grappled with developing an approvable plan to address the findings and recommendations of the Report.  I understand we are close, however I must raise a question regarding the recent vote by the New York State Regents regarding Common Core aligned standardized tests.  Consistent with the recommendations of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Common Core Task Force, released on December 10th, the New York State Regents voted, on December 14th, to accept among others Recommendation 21 that proposes:  Until the new system is fully phased in, the results from assessments aligned to the current Common Core Standards, as well as the updated standards, shall only be advisory and not be used to evaluate the performance of individual teachers or students.  More broadly stated the decision is to place a moratorium on the use of the results of these tests until 2019-2020 pending their revision.  That includes the tests given during the 2012-13. 2013-14 and 2014-15 school years.

As you also know, one of the recommendations of Dr. Orfield regarding the criteria used to determine student admission to the criterion schools was “eliminating the New York state tests because the standards have been changed so drastically and their use is too new to support valid predictions…” (The Report: p 81)

I believe that the current reversal by the Regents regarding these tests warrants a revisit by the District of this recommendation and by way of this communication I am requesting that the District undertake this review.  Thank you.  I look forward to your response.

Barbara A. Seals Nevergold, PhD

Member at Large

Sunday, December 13, 2015

the Governor’s Common Core Task Force Ignores Receivership

After a ten week “review” of the Common Core Learning Standards, curriculum and tests, which according to the final report included “exhaustive outreach….two public sessions with testimony....nine listening sessions with open public testimony; a virtual student engagement…. outreach to hundreds of educators, parents, students…and other stakeholders and a survey of other states’ reviews”, the Governor’s Common Core Task Force released a Report on December 10th with their findings and recommendations.

Overall the Task Force concluded that “New York must have rigorous, high quality education standards to improve the education of all of our students and hold schools and districts accountable for students’ success.”  However, as a result of their comprehensive review and analysis the primary findings were   summarized in this pronouncement:   "The implementation of the Common Core in New York was rushed and flawed. Teachers stepped into their classrooms in the 2012-2013 school year unfamiliar and uncomfortable with the new standards, without curriculum resources to teach students, and forced to administer new high-stakes standardized tests that were designed by a corporation instead of educators."

The Report offers a series of recommendations, grouped by what is defined as major issues that created barriers in the “adoption and implementation of the Common Core Standards.”  None of this new-found insight or recommendations are cutting edge as they echo problems with the Common Core that parents, educators and other stakeholders have been citing over the last three years.  I found the Task Force’s conclusions and recommendations on the use of Common Core aligned testing with special student populations of particular interest.  In an over-due official acknowledgment  that the “one size fits all” standardized testing system is unfair and in need of an over-haul, the Task Force recommends more “flexibility for assessments of Students with Disabilities” and the elimination of “double testing for English Language Learners”.  Advocates have long cited the inequity of requiring these students to take the same tests as all other students.

But the final and perhaps most significant recommendation proposes that “the results from assessments aligned to the current Common Core Standards, as well as the updated standards, shall only be advisory and not be used to evaluate the performance of individual teachers or students.”  The Task Force does not detail how this recommendation will be implemented but does offer a time frame.  They suggest that a reasonable period to formulate and evaluate new standards and tests would be five years, until the 2019-20 school year.

Like the 800 pound gorilla in the room, the Report ignores another “high stakes test” dependent variable:  Receivership.  The Report is silent on how Recommendation 21 would address the use of  assessments in the accountability matrix that determines “persistently struggling” and “struggling” schools.  The Report is also silent on how these findings will impact School Districts (mostly urban) which had Receivership imposed this year, in part with the use of the test data gathered from the Common Core aligned tests.

The Common Core fiasco offers a persuasive example of the problems resulting from; a rush to implement a high stakes program, lack of transparency and inclusion, failure to engage educators in the development of the standards, ignoring research data and turning a deaf ear to earnest feedback and proposed solutions.  In fact the Common Core protests mirror objections and offer valid comparisons to the development and roll out of Receivership.  However, before continuing with this analysis, a look at Buffalo illustrates why the last recommendation of the Task Force provides a compelling justification for a review and analysis of the rationale, role of standardized tests and documented benefits of “receivership” as currently being implemented.

Buffalo has 25 Receivership Schools; 5 “persistently struggling” which have one year to show “demonstrable improvement” and 20 “struggling” which have 2 years.  A few statistics about Buffalo’s five “persistently struggling schools”, euphemistically dubbed the “high 5” by our Superintendent Receiver, offer a picture of these schools and their populations that demonstrate reasons for further discussion of the Task Force proposals regarding special student populations.  The demographics of these schools, especially those of the two population groups cited by the Task Force are as follows:

% of Students with Disabilities – 11.9%, 20.9%, 17.5%, 25% and 24.5%
% of English Language Learners - 40.5%, 14%, 31.6%, 7.4% and 7.2%

For additional perspective, a review of District wide demographics for these indicators reveals that of 34,000 students, 20% are Students with Disabilities, 14% are English Language Learners.   The over-representation of these groups in the “persistently struggling” schools should evoke a call for a serious dialog between the District, the NY State Education Department, the Buffalo Board of Education, educators, parents and other stakeholders.  

Unlike the Common Core Standards, Receivership is the result of legislation enacted by the Legislature with the support of the Governor.  Hastily enacted, the law was passed with little input or feedback from educators, parents or other educational and community stakeholders.  The mechanics of receivership were left to the NYSED to devise.  The law went into effect July 1, 2015 and NYSED has scrambled to develop policies, protocols and a framework to implement the law, while also educating Receivership districts on the law’s impact.  In this rush to implementation, SED has ignored “lessons learned” from the Common Core experience of building a plane while flying it.  Other glaring examples of SED’s failure to plan can be found in the lack of research and data on successful receivership districts and the Commissioner’s determination to impose her dictates on teachers and to empower the Receiver.

The Task Force called for a moratorium on the use of high states tests to evaluate teachers, recommended that there be a revisit to testing itself to better meet the needs of a diverse student population and proposed that the children not suffer any harm "from the tests previously administrated; all of which have implications for Receivership.  Since this Task Force has concluded its work, it’s time to impanel a new group tasked with the work of reviewing, researching,  inviting public comment/feedback and coming to terms with the inequity of Receivership and its impact on 144 schools across the state.