Sunday, March 13, 2016

A Word from the Commissioner

Over the last two months I have written two letters, a resolution, a petition that gathered over 500 signatures and a few emails to State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, the Board of Regents, several members of the Legislature, the Buffalo Board of Education and the Superintendent.  What all these communications had in common was a request for answers to a number of critical questions about the Governor’s Common Core Task Force Report.  These questions were related to the Task Force’s recommendations regarding New York State standardized tests and the major implications for our District’s Receivership schools and admissions criteria to Criterion schools (City Honors and Olmsted, in particular).

Recently, I received a reply and while the Commissioner’s letter was perfunctory, I did not want to respond to her correspondence with the same lack of regard with which my letters were received.   
My article last week cited the unprecedented impact of the Opt Out movement, which resulted in hundreds of thousands of children refusing to take the test last year.  Buffalo students opted out but in low numbers.  My letters to the Commissioner questioned how tests results from 2014 and 2015, deemed by the Common Core Task Force to be invalid in determining student placement and evaluation, are being used to assess and label our schools as failures, designated for Receivership.  In response the Commissioner replied that the Task Force recommendations applied to “the performance of individual teachers and students”, not to “institutional accountability”.  Bottom line; Receivership is the law.  I still question that response.  However, while the Commissioner did not make this point; the Receivership law is the subject of a law suit so its future will be determined by the courts.

The second question I asked the Commissioner addressed the use of these same test scores, by the District, in the criteria that determines student admissions’ eligibility to the criterion schools.  In fact, I first brought this concern to the attention of District administration in December shortly after the Common Core Task Force Report was made public.  Remember, the Commissioner replied that the Task Force’s recommendation on the use of ELA/Math assessment results is related to “the performance of individual teachers and students”.  The specific language from the Task Force Report states: “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 Commissioner elaborated on this issue in the following statement:

“While it is not appropriate for me to comment on the District’s specific policies in this letter, I note that Part AA, Subpart C of Chapter 56 of the Laws of 2014 added a new subdivision (47) to Education Law 305, which directs the Commissioner to provide that no school district shall make any student promotion or placement decisions based solely or primarily on student performance on the State administered standardized English language arts and mathematics assessments for grades three through eight.  The statue does not allow a school district to consider student performance on such State assessments in making placement decisions, but only as one of multiple measures and only if such assessments do not constitute the major factor in such determinations.”

There are several measures that comprise the admissions criteria and are used to determine individual student performance.  The District calculates a student’s rank for criterion school admission based on 4 or 5 measures – totaling 31 points (City Honors) or 20 - 31 points (Olmsted).  The criteria are:  Cognitive Ability Assessment, 1-9 pts; NYS Math & ELA Assessments, 1-9 pts; Grade Point Average (Olmsted only uses this criteria for high school applicants), 4-9 pts; Attendance, 2pts; Teacher rating, 2pts).

I have received complaints from several parents whose children opted out of the Math/ELA tests and as a result were given a zero for this measure on their applications to City Honors and Olmsted.  This score effectively nullifies a student’s application as it makes consideration for admission impossible.  Unlike the case of a child from a private school, who didn’t take the ELA/Math tests and is allowed to substitute a comparable measure, these Buffalo students were given no such option.  In the case of the City Honors’ criteria, the zero accounts for 29% of the potential score for ranking.  Even more astounding, a child applying for admissions to Olmsted in grades 5 -8, lost 43% of the potential score. 

The Commissioner’s citation of the State regulation regarding the use of ELA/Math scores in placement decisions underscores an inequity in Buffalo’s application of the admissions criteria.  Although the word “solely” is clear the use of “major” can be interpreted to a degree.  The assignment of 29% and 43% of a ranked score based on the Math/ELA assessments is a significant contribution to the overall accumulation of points and final ranking, and therefore “major”.

As I have done since identifying this problem, I will continue to question the fairness of the systematic assignment of a zero for children whose parents made the decision to refuse the ELA/Math tests.  Even Governor Cuomo has acknowledged that parents have the right to make this decision for their children.  Nearly a quarter million children refused the test last year and will benefit from the Common Core Task Force recommendations.  The District is refusing to reconsider the weighting of the admissions criteria and appears willing to penalize Buffalo school children, whose parents made them a part of this movement.   This is not acceptable.

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