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.


  1. I submitted this to the BN last Saturday. Not hopeful it will be published...

    What does the Common Core Task Force Report Mean for Buffalo Public Schools?
    Congress recently passed the Every Students Succeeds Act, restoring much authority back to states over education standards and policy. Successively, on the same day ESSA was signed into law by the President, Governor Cuomo’s Common Core Task Force released a report acknowledging the flawed use of state assessments to evaluate teachers/students and providing recommendations, particularly useful to students with disabilities and English Language Learners. The Board of Regents followed suit voting in support of the recommendations.
    All signal a shift in priority toward restoring local control over decision-making, but, the overbearing Education Transformation Act imposed by the Governor and hastily passed by state lawmakers, remains. Suspiciously, the Governor has claimed that the Task Force recommendations can be implemented without changes to this law, which requires that teachers be evaluated with state assessment scores. The law also categorizes particular schools as “failing” and “persistently failing”, primarily using state assessments, and places them under “receivership” which grants decision-making “powers” to a “receiver” and Commissioner of Education.
    The Task Force failed to address how state assessments apply to evaluating districts and schools, a practice unfairly punitive to urban districts and schools, particularly Buffalo, where 25 schools are currently under “superintendent receivership”. If state assessments have been deemed invalid in evaluating teachers/students, then, logically, the same should apply to evaluating schools. Intertwined in this and also not addressed by the Task Force, are the illogical cut scores determined by former Commissioner King, which almost guarantees that at least 70% of students fail each year. These predetermined cut scores have wrongly judged and punished many Buffalo Public Schools, most of which, disproportionately consist of students with disabilities, English Language Learners, and students of poverty.
    The state imposed “receivership” under the guise that it would address the individual needs of “persistently failing” schools (five Buffalo Schools) with an additional $75 million in state aid. However, with the school year almost half surpassed amid a one year mandate to show “demonstrable improvement” or face takeover by an “independent receiver”, these schools have yet to see a penny of this promised aid.
    Buffalo parents and students across the city do not want their public schools shutdown or taken over by a private entity. They want their schools built up and provided necessary staffing, intervention, and whole child learning and experiences, with small class sizes. They want thriving public schools as hubs of their communities.
    With our State lawmakers returning to session in January the time is now for substantial change in law, which, in turn, guides policy toward local control and decision-making. We need more than public proclamations and recommendations. We need change in law and policy. Contact and urge your local members in the Senate and Assembly to act now!

    Larry Scott
    Buffalo Parent-Teacher Organization Co-Chair & BPS Parent

  2. Larry, you wrote, "Buffalo parents and students across the city do not want their public schools shutdown or taken over by a private entity."

    As a Buffalo parent, and an involved member of the community, I don't care what happens to publics schools, and I don't care who runs my kid's school. I want the children of our community educated, and (because I have no ideological axe to grind) I don't care how it gets done, or who gets the credit for getting it done.

    I agree with a lot of your line of questioning, and much of your position, but at the end of the day, the American political debate around schools is a lot like divorcee's using their children as pawns to get back at each other for the rancor of their failed marriage. They might stand in front of the judge and "fight for their children" but they aren't doing what is best for their kids, they are only doing what helps them win. An honest assessment would be that we are blinded by our ideology, and that this is unintentional, but the children suffer regardless of our intentions.

    The real problem with our school system is not the school system, or the teachers, or the curriculum, or the tests, or the standards, or the unions, or the government, or the private schools, or the rich people, or the poor people, or the charter schools. The real problem with our school system is the disintegration of the American family over the past 50 years. Kids don't have what they need to make the most of what teachers and schools offer them.

    Another analogy here are the musicians on the Titanic. The ship is sinking and they are concerned that the music is playing and the instruments are tuned. The kids are showing up to school with no ability to learn and we are concerned with whether our teachers are qualified to teach or the test scores are accurate.

  3. Well said Steven. Point taken. Thank you!

    1. Larry, thanks for a very thoughtful and insightful commentary. The News should publish it but knowing their bias, it seems unlikely. Therefore I'm pleased that you shared your observations with WNED and on this Blog. It's imperative that our voices are heard.