POV: Parents should decide children’s participation in exams after thoughtful and informed consideration

This Point of View was submitted by Glenn Niles, superintendent of the Arkport Central School District.

Points_viewA growing number of parents and caregivers statewide are planning to opt their children out of participating in standardized tests administered in public schools across the country this spring.

We in the Arkport Central School District understand parents have questions and concerns about the tests, which are scheduled to take place in April for students in grades 3-8. And while we understand some parents’ wish to have their children refuse to take the upcoming state assessments, we’re also concerned about the incomplete and, in some cases, inaccurate information about test refusal that is being promoted across social media channels and elsewhere — namely that the tests have no value, that they are overly punitive to teachers and that the information they provide is not used.

We urge parents to decide about their children’s participation in the upcoming exams only after thoughtful and informed consideration.

After 20 years working in New York public schools, I know first-hand the essential role that testing plays in the learning cycle; good teaching and learning depend on understanding what students know. But in the opt-out storm now raging around New York and across the nation, I fear the primary purpose — and ultimate value — of student assessment is being clouded by politics and the misdirected frustration of some well-meaning groups. Test refusal has become the latest political football in a game that ultimately sidelines local school districts and the students entrusted to their care.

I understand the impulse to rage against the machine. But the local school district is not the machine. For those who don’t know, school superintendents and Boards of Education have no say in the administration of standardized state tests to students in grades 3-8 in English language arts and math. The testing is a national mandate as part of the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2002. Furthermore, here in New York, all schools are required to have a 95 percent participation rate in state testing, as noted in a January 2013 memo to school districts from the New York Education Department (NYSED).

When the opt-out movement gained momentum last year and many districts’ participation dropped below the 95 percent mark, the state education department calculated the weighted average of the 2012-13 and 2013-14 participation rates for those schools. In Arkport, for example, the 2013-14 rate of 87 percent was offset by 2012-13’s rate of 96 percent. But that was a one-time fix. Last year’s rate will not help us this year.

For those that fail to reach this minimum threshold, consequences can include a loss of control over how federal Title I funds can be spent and/or the imposition of state intervention measures, such as the mandated preparation of new curricular and academic intervention plans; data analysis followed by strategic plans to address identified problems; implementation plans; mid-year plan reviews, final reports, etc. It goes on and on. I’ve done it all before, and it’s an enormous drain of time and other resources.

Specifically, if Arkport fails to reach a 95 percent participation rate in the state tests, we’ll likely have to re-do our District Comprehensive Education Plan (DCEP) and School Comprehensive Education Plan (SCEP), which will siphon away instruction time from teachers. We will also be required to participate in mandatory trainings in Albany; shift the focus of our professional development; and be required to set aside significant local, state and federal funds for “parent engagement.”

In short, we’ll lose a lot of local control and valuable time that would be better spent in the classroom with our students and teachers.

As important as it is for us to have the last word on how we spend the tax dollars set aside for the education of Arkport children, the real value in state testing is what it accomplishes in the teaching-learning relationship.

Standardized tests serve as an objective assessment of all students at a particular grade level and as a measuring stick of students’ understanding of the skills and knowledge embodied in the New York State Learning Standards. Without standardized testing, there is no way to compare students in one school or district with students in other schools and other locations, or against any objective measure of achievement.

All tests are meant to identify and help bridge the gaps that exist between what people know and what they should know in order to move to the next grade, be accepted in a college or vocational school, get a license, or earn a promotion at work. Schools use standardized test results to shine a light on skill and knowledge gaps — generally by grade level and specifically by student — so teachers can plan how best to fill them.

In addition, districts use state assessment results as one measure in determining what services or supports a student may need in school, such as academic intervention services in reading and math.

Some opposition to state testing stems from the state’s use of the test results in New York’s Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) ratings system used to evaluate teachers and principals. Currently, 20 percent of a teacher’s or a principal’s evaluation is derived from “student growth,” which can be based on state test results, depending on which grade level/subject they teach or oversee. “Growth scores” are based on how students perform on state exams compared to similar students across the state. Teachers are assigned growth scores based on demonstrated student growth as measured by these standardized assessments. Interestingly, and ultimately, it is not students’ individual achievement scores that matter for the purpose of teacher evaluations. It does not matter how many 1s , 2s, 3s or 4s any single teacher’s students achieve. What matters, and has always mattered, is whether or not a teacher’s students have demonstrated growth, from one year to the next.

Education law states that parents have the primary responsibility for their children’s education, and the decisions they make for their children should be respected. And I don’t dispute that. But as an educator, I understand the value in measurement and the penalties for non-compliance. At Arkport, each one of us is committed to ensuring our students are learning, growing and preparing as best they can during every one of the 182 instructional days in the school year. We accomplish this through a daily cycle of teaching, learning and assessing. We ask students to show us what they know every day, using a wide variety of assessment tools.

For us, the state exams are no more or less important than any other assessment we give our students at any time during the school year — all of which are used to help us support our students by planning appropriate instruction for them. If you sincerely wish to support teachers, consider providing them with all the tools they need to provide your children with all the services they need.

Budget rundown: Reaction from around the state

New York has a budget for 2015-16.

Shortly after 3:00 a.m. Wednesday morning, Assembly members concluded their lengthy session, officially finalizing the roughly $150 billion spending plan. Here’s a brief overview of the components of the education bill.

  • State aid – The 2015-16 state budget includes a $1.3 billion year-to-year increase in aid to school districts statewide. Local aid increases are tied to new APPR teacher evaluation plans. A district must have a plan approved by November 15, 2015, in order to receive any increase in aid over 2014-15. The Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA) has been partially reduced in 2015-16 and is scheduled to end in 2016-17.
  • Teacher evaluations – The New York State Education Department will oversee the latest overhaul of the Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) for teachers and principals. There will be two components to teacher evaluations: student performance on assessments and classroom observations. The value assigned to each component has not been determined. The budget also establishes strict new rules for educators who are rated “ineffective” in two or more consecutive years.
  • Teacher tenure – The probationary period for teachers and principals is increased from three years to four years. Teachers must have effectiveness ratings of either “Highly Effective” or “Effective” in three out of the four years to qualify for tenure. A teacher or principal who is rated “Ineffective” in year four cannot be granted tenure, but can have the probationary term extended by one year.
  • Underperforming schools – The budget sets a timeline for schools that are deemed “chronically underperforming” to improve or face consequences. Districts would be required to have improvement plans approved by the State Education Department and meet objectives contained within the plan. Schools would have one or two years to demonstrate improvement depending on how long it has been underperforming. Failure to show improvement could result in a school being put into receivership, giving control of the school to  a state-designated non-profit.

From Gov. Andrew Cuomo:

“Tonight, both houses of the Legislature have successfully passed the 2015-16 Budget spending plan to allow for the continued operation of government. This is a plan that keeps spending under two percent, reforms New York’s education bureaucracy, implements the nation’s strongest and most comprehensive disclosure laws for public officials and makes the largest investment in the Upstate economy in a generation.

This is a Budget that every New Yorker can be proud of, and I look forward to continuing to work to move New York forward this legislative session and beyond.”

Coverage from around the state

An outline of education reform proposals in budget (Capital New York)

Assembly affirms Cuomo-driven education budget, with ‘heavy hearts’ (Capital New York)

$142B New York state budget races clock (Capitol Confidential)

Party like it’s 2013! State aid increase to be linked to evaluations

School aid funding will be tied to teacher evaluations after all, reports Capital New York. According to the report, the $1.4B increase in aid agreed upon in the budget will be tied directly to state approval of locally negotiated teacher evaluation plans. Districts will have until mid-November to have their plans approved.

From Capital New York:

According to budget language that has not yet been finalized, the department would craft—subject to approval of the Board of Regents—regulations outlining a new evaluation system by June 30, deputy senior education commissioner Ken Wagner told Capital on Monday.

Some aspects of the rating system would be optional, so they would require negotiations between school districts, teachers and principals’ unions.

This model of withholding aid until an evaluation plan is approved was first introduced by Gov. Cuomo in 2013. Now, it seems districts will have to renegotiate their APPR plans.

“If we rewind back to the first year of implementation, districts had to put these plans in place under threat of losing a state aid increase,” New York State School Boards Association spokesman David Albert told Capital New York. “Why would we do the same thing again? Why not give districts the time they need so they can take the time to negotiate agreements that make sense?”

Details began to emerge last night on the new teacher evaluation system. The system will have two components: student test results and observation. From Jessica Bakeman:

There will be two required observations, from a teacher’s principal or administrator and an “independent” evaluator, who could be a principal, administrator or “highly effective” teacher from another school or district. As Cuomo originally proposed, a college professor or retired educator could also serve as the independent evaluator. A peer observation will be optional…Student growth on state-administered, Common Core-aligned English and math exams in third through eighth grades and Regents exams in high school will be required components for the evaluation system…Districts and local unions may choose to include an additional test, which would be designated by the State Education Department.

According to the most recent budget information, the State Education Department will be tasked with determining the percentage of evaluations tied to test scores.

“We’re giving SED the ability to do what the intent is for them to do,” Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said Sunday night. “The state education department should be the chief arbiters of education policy in the state, and we’re allowing them to do what their mission is.”

The bills containing school aid and teacher evaluation have not been introduced or finalized as of Tuesday morning.

On Monday, New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) president Karen Magee called for a mass opt out of state testing, citing that test-based evaluation is not a reliable measure of teacher effectiveness.

“I’m a parent,” Magee said. “My child is in 11th grade at this point in time. Had he been a third to eighth grader, he would not be taking the test. The tests are not valid indicators. The American Statistical Association has said there is no direct link to tie these tests to student performance or teacher evaluation. Let’s look at tests that are diagnostic in nature, that actually inform practice in the classroom, that actually work to serve students who are directly sitting in front of the teacher for the year as opposed to what we have in place right now.”

The “opt-out” movement has increasingly gained traction. According to the NYSSBA, during the 2014 testing cycle, approximately 60,000 New York students opted out of the tests, compared with 10,000 a year earlier.

NYSUT officials released a fact sheet on opting out Monday morning, though this shouldn’t come as a surprise as they have stated in the past that they support a parent’s right to opt his/her child out of the state exams.

 

Budget deal reached, schools to see increase in aid

Update 11:04 a.m. According to Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi on Capital Press Room, 50% or $550M of the Gap Elimination Reduction will be restored.

Update 8:56 a.m. School aid runs should be released today, according to NYSUT. (H/T Susan Arbetter @sarbetter)

Update 8:45 a.m. Gov. Cuomo and legislative leaders agreed on a framework for the state budget Sunday night that if approved, would see at least a $1.4B boost in aid to school districts and give the state education department control over teacher evaluation reform.

This increase in aid is higher than the $1.1B proposed by Cuomo in January. According to Capital New York, lawmakers said they were still working out exactly how school aid would be distributed. More details are expected to be released Monday.

The role of SED in relation to developing new teacher evaluations strays from what was reported late last week where lawmakers were reportedly discussing having the Board of Regents assume responsibility over evaluation reform.

From Capital New York on the role of SED handling evaluation reform:

A Cuomo administration source said the budget would specifically charge the education commissioner with the task, not the board. There is currently a vacancy in that role, since commissioner John King departed last year to take a job with the federal government…The department would have to flesh out the details of the new system by June. School districts would need to finalize any locally negotiated aspects of their ratings system and submit their plans for state approval by November.

“We’re giving SED the ability to do what the intent is for them to do,” Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie told Capital New York. “The state education department should be the chief arbiters of education policy in the state, and we’re allowing them to do what their mission is.”

The budget will reportedly also include a program for state takeover of under-performing schools. From Capital New York:

Under the agreement, struggling schools will submit a plan to the state education department showing how they will improve, according to a Cuomo administration source.

Pending approval, the schools that have been yielding poor outcomes for 10 years or more will be allowed one year to show “demonstrable progress” before being subject to a state takeover. If there is no “demonstrable progress,” the school will go into receivership. Schools that have been struggling for at least three years will have two years to improve.

 

“After decades of leading the nation in education spending but lagging in results, New York will set an example for all other states with a complete overhaul of the entrenched education bureaucracy,” Cuomo said in a statement. “These reforms – accompanied by an unprecedented financial investment – will put students first by bringing accountability to the classroom, recruiting and rewarding our best teachers, further reducing over-testing, and finally confronting our chronically failing schools.”

There are conflicting reports over the status of teacher tenure. While Cuomo’s original proposal called for five consecutive “effective” ratings, Heastie said tenure will change from three years experience to four and evaluations will play a part in the tenure decision.

According to Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, the Gap Elimination Adjustment, which so many education advocates have fought to have removed, will be dramatically reduced.

More details on the budget are expected to be released Monday.

NYSUT to rally at the Capitol today

With the state budget deadline of April 1 looming, New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) will be gathering at the Capitol on Thursday to protest Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s education reform proposals.

Since Cuomo released his budget proposal in late January calling for significant changes to the teacher evaluation process, NYSUT has been on the offensive, launching numerous ad and social media campaigns.

On Wednesday, NYSUT president Karen Magee said the union would support a stakeholders panel that would vet Cuomo’s proposed changes to the teacher evaluation system. The State Assembly majority conference is currently debating establishing such a panel.

From Capitol Confidential:

“We’d be in favor of a panel … of stakeholders,” Magee said, adding that the panel would have to have no power over aid or the authority to put any changes to the evaluation system into effect.

Cuomo’s proposed plan that would change the evaluation process for teachers so that 50 percent of scores are based on state exams and the other 50 percent on observations. Teachers would have to be rated highly effective or effective in both areas to receive an overall rating of highly effective or effective. A teacher who has two consecutive “ineffective” ratings would be removed from their teaching position.

NYSUT will also be protesting Cuomo’s withholding of state aid from schools until a budget deal is reached and high-stakes testing. Cuomo has tied $1.1 billion in education funding to the passage of his proposed reforms.

On Wednesday, Republican senators spoke out against Cuomo’s decision to withhold aid.

From the Buffalo News:

Sen. John J. Flanagan, R-East Northport, influential chairman of the Senate Education Committee, dismissed talk Wednesday that a decision on school aid will be delayed until June.

“I don’t envision any circumstance where we’d leave here without a school aid run and school aid numbers,” he said.

The NYSUT rally will be held at 4 p.m., Thursday on the “Million Dollar Staircase.”

 

POV: It’s time to restore funding for public schools

This Point of View was submitted by Matthew J. Downey, president of the Bethlehem Central School District Board of Education, and Charmaine L. Wijeyesinghe, Ed.D., Vice President.

Points_viewNow is the time of year when the New York State Legislature and Governor debate and formulate a state budget that includes funding for vital functions like our state’s public school system. This is also the time of year when Boards of Education in our State are formulating their district budgets for the 2015-16 school year. In Bethlehem, our budget development process is transparent, open and efficient, inviting community input. Like all school districts, our task involves evaluating state aid estimates, reviewing budget projections and determining the local tax levy necessary to support our educational program. This is a challenging task – with the provision of quality public education for the children of our community hanging in the balance. This year, the work of all school boards in New York State has been made even more difficult by the fact that we must put together our respective school district budgets without having the benefit of receiving key state aid figures that guide our budget development efforts.

The reason? This year, when the Executive Budget was proposed to the Legislature, it was instructed that state aid estimates be withheld from school districts, until policy changes proposed in the budget were enacted. Without aid runs, school districts are left guessing — about the amount of school aid that our school will receive, about what taxpayers might see on their tax bills in September, and about what a school district’s educational program might look like in the coming school year.

This withholding of state aid information comes on top of years of state budgets that eroded state education aid for all school districts – including Bethlehem. The loss of this state aid (through a mechanism called the Gap Elimination Adjustment, or GEA, and the freezing of state school aid through changes to Foundation Aid) caused upheaval for school budgets. In Bethlehem, the cuts caused an 18 percent reduction in teaching and administrative staff, the closure of an elementary school, the reconfiguration of bus transportation requiring students to walk longer distances, and other changes that resulted in fewer teachers and larger classes.

In the past six years, school districts statewide have lost nearly $9 billion in state aid. In Bethlehem alone, GEA losses have cost Bethlehem $18 million in state funding since 2010. This year, without the Legislature acting to get rid of the GEA, Bethlehem’s school funding will be cut by another $3 million.

In 2015, the state has a projected $5 billion surplus. With this positive budget environment, it’s time to stop the erosion of funding to our public schools by eliminating the GEA and the Foundation Aid cuts. On behalf of the thousands of school children in our school district, we ask our elected officials to stand up for public education and stand firmly in support of our public schools. Our students, parents, and community — as well as our educational program — depend on it.

Fiscal Policy Institute says NYS is responsible for failing schools

According to a report released by the Fiscal Policy Institute (FPI) on Tuesday, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s funding proposal for schools does not do enough to adequately address the real needs of under-performing or “failing” schools in New York state.

A month ago, Gov. Cuomo released his report on failing schools, claiming that more than 109,000 students are currently enrolled 178 failing schools throughout New York. The FPI argues that the school districts that are home to these failing schools teach students who face many challenges, most alarmingly disproportionately high levels of poverty.

From the report:

  • They live in communities that are among the poorest in the state with the least resources to improve local schools. Three times as many school age children live in poverty in districts with priority schools than in other New York school districts.
  • Over three-fourths of the students in priority schools are eligible for the federal free or reduced price lunch program.
  • Many of these students are not proficient in English or are from minority families with disproportionately high levels of unemployment and poverty. More than 9 out of 10 students in these schools are minorities.

If the state wants to see a real change, the institute said it needs to increase K-12 school aid and funding for universal pre-kindergarten, improve services and aid to people in poverty and help boost the income of low-income New Yorkers so fewer children grow up in poverty.

“…The formula used to distribute additional aid will determine whether additional aid is directed to the students most in need. During the Great Recession, the state cut
school aid. Cuts were allocated to individual districts through a Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA). Some of that adjustment has been restored but the GEA still reduces Foundation Aid and other aid to schools by over $1 billion. The Executive Budget does not specify whether the proposed increase in school aid will be distributed by reducing the GEA or by using the Foundation Aid formula and the Assembly and Senate differ on the split in their proposals. The state should use the Foundation Aid formula to distribute increased school aid in order to direct more assistance to the districts with the highest needs.”

The report also attacks Cuomo’s plan of tying school funding to teacher evaluation and tenure.

“By focusing on teacher evaluation procedures, the Executive Budget fails to address the fact that high-need districts throughout the state are straining under inadequate funding. Proposals such as requiring teacher evaluations to be based on test scores and the promotion of charter schools fail to directly address the educational challenges faced by low-income students. Teachers cannot control the backgrounds of their students, and they cannot overcome the resulting disadvantages on their own. In addition to an adequate increase in aid, broad-based solutions that address the academic, social, and health needs of students and engage the local community are needed.”

Hundreds pack Colonie High for ‘Save Our Schools’ advocacy event

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Watervliet City Schools superintendent Dr. Lori Caplan address local legislators.

Stakeholders from school districts around the Capital Region converged Thursday night at Colonie Central High School to continue an annual call to action on the fiscal crisis facing public schools.

Local legislators from around the region were in attendance and given prime seating — on the stage — providing them the opportunity to hear first-hand from area educators, students, parents and board members how a lack of funding, unfair assessments and performance evaluations are crippling public education.

According to organizers, the Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA), which takes money away from schools to help balance the state budget, has cost Capital Region schools approximately $445 million in promised state aid since its inception. This loss in aid has forced many districts to lay off teachers and staff, and cut educational program offerings to students.

“Governor Cuomo said that teachers wouldn’t be impacted. Tell that to the 30,000 teachers that have been let go,” Oppenheim-Ephratah-St. Johnsville Central School District teacher Laura Bellinger said.

District leaders directed their frustration at the inequitable distribution of aid and pleaded with local legislators to correct the problem.

“I’m not asking for someone else’s piece of the pie,” Watervliet City Schools superintendent Lori Caplan said. “I just want fair and equitable distribution.”

“We have to change the funding formula and make it fair to all districts,” Assemblyman James Tedisco said. “This is not a one-size-fits-all system.”

The teachers who spoke urged the legislators to use a common sense approach when it comes to student assessments and teacher evaluations.

The governor’s budget proposal outlined a plan that would change the evaluation process so that 50 percent of scores are based on state exams and the other 50 percent on observations. Teachers would have to be rated highly effective or effective in both areas to receive an overall rating of highly effective or effective, and that this process would eliminate much of the local testing taking place in school districts under the existing evaluation process.

“We all deserve better than this,” Schalmont teacher Jessica Melchior said. “Let’s use assessment how it was meant to be used — as a formative or summative tool in a professional learning community. Let’s judge teachers on things that matter.  Let’s not take Common Core out of context for a political agenda.”

Students in attendance also spoke out on testing, questioning the importance of pre-tests, which are given before any subject matter is taught in a given area, to judge how much a student knows.

“It’s a rare case that a student takes the pre-test seriously,” Schalmont student Bill Schmidt said. “We know the pre-test doesn’t factor into our grade. We know that we don’t know anything about chemistry, so we fill in all the A bubbles on our scantron. Basically, we get a day to make sure we color within the lines of the bubble marked ‘A.'”  

The legislators in attendance urged those in attendance to stay vocal and keep the pressure on the governor in order to get the change they want.

“Keep your voices strong,” Assemblyman John McDonald said. “Stay strong. We’re going to get this done.”

Cuomo releases failing schools report

More than 109,000 students are currently enrolled in New York’s 178 failing schools, according to a report released by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office this morning.

The timing of the report coincides with Cuomo’s proposal to implement a Massachusetts-style program that would permit the overhaul of failing schools. The proposal would allow a nonprofit, turnaround expert or another district to take over a school after three years of poor results. This entity would be charged with overhauling the curriculum, terminating underperforming staff and recruiting high-performing educators.

A school is considered “failing” based on being among the bottom five percent in the state in ELA and math performance or having graduation rates below 60 percent. Of the 178 schools on the list, 77 have been failing for a decade. More than 250,000 students have passed through these 77 schools in the past ten years.

“This is the real scandal in Albany, the alarming fact that state government has stood by and done nothing as generation after generation of students have passed through failing schools,” Cuomo said in a statement. “This report underscores the severity and shocking nature of this problem. The time is now for the State Legislature to act and do something about this problem so we no longer are condemning our children to failing schools.”

While Cuomo was releasing his report, calling on state leaders to act in response to his failing schools announcement, many lawmakers were at the state Capitol, calling on Cuomo to be more transparent with the budget and release aid figures to school districts.

 

‘Save Our Schools’ advocacy event tonight

Tonight, Colonie Central High School will once again host stakeholders from dozens of Capital Region area school districts in what has become an annual regional call to action on the fiscal crisis facing public schools.

The event, entitled: “Save Our Schools: Quality Opportunities for Public School Children” will bring students, parents, teachers, taxpayers and school leaders together to talk about how the educational fiscal crisis has affected programs and opportunities that are important to them and their neighbors. View the agenda for the event.

The event will begin at 7 p.m. in the Mark Cornell Auditorium at Colonie Central High School, 1 Raider Blvd., Albany, NY.

Ed Speaks will be there covering the event. Follow along with us on Twitter throughout the night, @edspeaksNY #saveourNYschools.