Sunday, July 31, 2016

Revisiting ELA and Math 2016

It’s that time of year again.  Last Friday, the New York State Commissioner of Education released the results of the annual English Language Arts (ELA) and Math standardized tests.   The results for Buffalo’s students showed an increase in proficiency, 4.5 points in ELA over last year’s tests (11.9% to 16.4%) and a 1 point increase in the Math proficiency (15.1% to 16.1%).  These scores exceed those of Rochester and Syracuse but they’re still low compared to our suburban counterparts.  Buffalo’s scores also reflect a similar small increase noted in the overall state numbers; ELA scores moved from 31.3 %  to 37.9%, a 6.6% increase, while the State Math scores increased by 1%, from 38.1% to 39.1%).

Aligned with the Common Core Learning Standards these tests have been in place since the 2012-13 school year.  A review of four years of test results shows that only about a third, at its lowest 31.1% (both ELA and Math) to 37.9% and 39.1%, of students this year have tested proficient.  Alterations in the 2016 tests such as a reduction in the number of questions and removal of the time restriction on the testing session gave students an unlimited time to complete the tests.  Did these adjustments contribute to the increase in scores?  At this time the State has not studied the impact of these significant changes on the overall test results. In announcing this year’s results, the State Commissioner acknowledged that State Ed could not determine reasons for the increase in test scores and cautioned making comparisons to last year’s test.   The reality is that the State will have difficulty making valid comparisons between this year’s tests and previous ones given the substantial modifications made to the 2016 testing cycle and the apparent failure to build in a method to determine the influence of the changes.   What else is there to learn about the validity of these numbers?  

However for those who profess belief in the sanctity of these tests, Buffalo’s results demonstrate a positive trajectory, are better than two of our Big 5 colleagues and in line with the statewide percentage increases.  Nonetheless in many instances the response to these numbers is the predictable labeling of our students, schools and District as failing and in need of reform.  Most often these calls for reform propose more charter schools, school takeover, e.g. receivership, parental choice strategies, or school closure.  There is little understanding and less dialogue about the substance of the standardized tests, the unfair weight, in the name of accountability, assigned to test results or about the human toll associated with standardized testing.

Opponents of the ELA/Math standardized tests, including myself, have cited the recurring assessment problems of these high stakes tests;

These tests:  1) are not developmentally appropriate – reading levels are far above the grade level being tested 2) are not diagnostic; they don’t provide information that helps the teacher target individual student learning needs 3) are not differentiated by student need as almost all children take the same test, regardless of their cognitive ability or their English language proficiency; it’s a one size fits all approach  4) encourage teaching to the test at the expense of time for other subjects  5) demoralize and frustrate children.

This year, however, I also heard from parents and staff in our District about other ways in which these tests negatively impacted our students’ sense of well-being and self-esteem and contributed to a culture that could impugn the integrity of our District.  I heard of students who were anxious about the tests to the point of getting sick in their classrooms; children who were crying, demoralized and frightened;  and children who sat for these tests for 6-8 hours!  As alarming, I also heard stories about administrators and teachers who sent subtle and not too subtle messages about the critical importance of these tests, not just to the student but to the school:  who convinced parents who were thinking of refusing the tests to change their decision to opt out; who planned school activities that either rewarded students who tested or punished those who didn’t.  To their credit when I brought these incidents to the attention of the administration, these situations were quickly rectified.  Yet, that these incidents occurred at all is disturbing and the ones I heard about were not likely the only ones of this kind.   

The 2016 testing cycle is a pivotal one, not just because of changes made in the testing conditions by the Commissioner but also because these are the first tests given since the Governor’s Common Core Task Force issued its report.  The Report judged the Common Core implementation along with its aligned curricula and tests as flawed.  In an over-due official statement the Report also agreed with many of the concerns expressed by test opponents, e.g. that the “one size fits all” standardized testing system is unfair and in need of an over-haul.  The Task Force recommended more “flexibility for assessments of Students with Disabilities” and the elimination of “double testing for English Language Learners”.  Importantly, the Task Force’s final recommendation proposed that “the results from assessments aligned to the current Common Core Standards…. shall only be advisory and not be used to evaluate the performance of individual teachers or students.”  The State Board of Regents accepted the Report findings and recommendations.

I offer this information as backdrop because rarely does the public discourse include or acknowledge the full scope of the data and information on the subject of the New York State ELA and Math standardized tests.  Too often the dialog remains fixed at the level of the “numbers” and what they purportedly convey about the academic health of our schools.  The Common Core Task Force’s recommendations have not taken effect at this time, so in addition to all of the points I’ve made, the 2016 test results still reflect the high stakes “one size fits all assessment” that the Task Force cited as unfair.  Let’s talk, but when we do come prepared to discuss all aspects of the issue.

This article reflects the views of the author and does not represent a formal statement on the behalf of the Buffalo Board of Education or any other organization.