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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Why Are Schools Across New York State So Frustrated?

By Peter DeWitt — August 20, 2013 4 min read
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According the Albany Times Union (Waldman) “The state now considers less than a third of New York’s students in third through eighth grade proficient in math and English, according to standardized test results released Wednesday.” Waldman went on to write that whole grade levels in some schools did not meet proficiency.

Fortunately, after years of top-down abuse by the state education department, parents, teachers and students are angry. Jamie Cruikshank, the Superintendent of Norwood-Norfolk Central School District in upstate, NY wrote,

As the date for the release of the scores approached, we received many "talking points" to inform our boards, communities, and teachers about the outcomes with explanations of new baselines and how these exams should not be viewed as a reflection on the efforts of students and teachers this year. Their message, while well-intentioned considering their perspective, seems self-serving and insulting."

In his News and Notes sent out on August 19th, Commissioner John King wrote,

In conjunction with the score release, we have emphasized that the new proficiency rates must not be used to criticize our schools, principals, and teachers. We have explained that the results do not mean schools taught less than last year or that students learned less than last year. We have tried to focus the public discourse on the commitment to college and career readiness for all students that has led 45 states and the District of Columbia, K-12 educators, higher education, and the business community to embrace the Common Core. I am grateful for the hard work of New York educators over the past three years to make the shifts in instruction required by the Common Core. I appreciate the commitment, professionalism, and determination to prepare all students for college and career success displayed by educators across the State as these first Common Core assessment results have been released."

However, Paul Finch disagrees with King’s notion of college and career ready. The Superintendent of the Red Hook Central School District wrote to parents saying, “Our third through eighth graders were administered New York State assessments in English and Math this past spring. These assessments were designed to measure students’ progress toward meeting a new set of standards called the Common Core. These standards purport to measure the skills needed to be successful in the 21st century. I use the word “purport” because there is no substantive, research-based evidence to support this claim.”

This concern with the effectiveness of the NY State Education Department is not new for us. We have seen many changes over the past few years. Subtle changes to the way the tests were delivered and the scores were released. Over the past three years the state education department seems to have made changes that almost play with the psyche of schools.

In 2010, the New York State Education Department changed the cut scores on the 3rd - 8th grade ELA and math state assessments. By doing so, they made it harder for students to receive a 3 or a 4 on the state assessments. The following shows the change in cut scores from 2010.

There were a variety of reasons why this happened. The State Education Department said it was to introduce increased rigor into the state assessment process. Another view was that the tests were seen as too easy in previous years. When schools around New York State received the new cut scores in the summer they were left scrambling to come up with a solution to the problem of having so many students receive a 2.

In New York State, any student who receives a 1 or a 2 is required to receive Academic Intervention Services (AIS). AIS is typically a service given outside the classroom in a smaller setting, although many schools do offer it as a push-in service as well. When schools cried foul about the increase in AIS students because they lacked the staff to provide such an increase in service, the state education department countered by saying that only low 2’s and all 1’s would need to receive AIS.

In addition, they changed the language of a level 2 from “Doesn’t Meet Standard” to the following.
• Level 1: Below Standard
• Level 2: Meets Basic Standard
• Level 3: Meets Proficiency Standard
• Level 4: Exceeds Proficiency Standard

Unfortunately, it was up to the schools to convey this message to parents because there was not a formal message that went out to parents from the NY State Education Department. Will this once again happen to schools? Many do not have the budgets to hire new teachers and lack the infrastructure to increase the amount of AIS offered to students.

Additionally, starting in 2011, after the language and cut scores changed, the state stopped providing schools with the courtesy of seeing an item analysis of the tests. Teachers had no idea where their students did well and where they needed improvement, which also meant that teachers had no idea how their instruction should change.

Parents and teachers were...and still are...left wondering what the state assessments are used for in our current system besides a tool for teacher and administrator evaluation.

Teacher and Administrator Evaluation
This past year, all schools across the state had to develop Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) Plans that specifically tied teacher and principal evaluation to the state assessments...the same state assessments that NY State no longer shares with teachers and principals.

As much as Commissioner John King, Deputy Commissioner Ken Slentz and US Secretary Arne Duncan said that educators and parents should not worry about the lower scores in 2013, the fact that almost 70% of students did not meet proficiency is alarming. I understand that we were assured that this does not mean that students did not learn as much as in previous years, but educators take their jobs seriously and are feeling very beaten and battered with the release of these scores.

There is no research that says the Common Core State Standards and state assessments with increased difficulty will help students become better prepared for college or careers. To those who argue that NAEP results show that NY State is leading the way in increased rigor, in her recent Answer Sheet blog, Carol Burris answered by writing,

New York's new cut scores are an attempt to benchmark state scores to the proficiency rates attached to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or, NAEP. Yet the connections between NAEP scores and college performance are so spurious that researchers have yet to claim that NAEP scores have any predictive value at all when it comes to college and career readiness. In addition, the NAEP proficient level is very high, not at grade level at all. In fact, most analysts consider the NAEP Basic level to be at grade level. You can read about the problems with using NAEP as a benchmark here."

In her blog, Diane Ravitch also commented on the NAEP assessments. Diane wrote,

More important, the NAEP achievement levels were never intended to be measures of grade level, and New York officials are wrong to interpret them as such, especially when they mistakenly use "proficient" as the passing mark. Any state that uses NAEP "proficient" as its definition of "grade level" is making a huge mistake; it will set the bar unreasonably high and will mislabel many students and misjudge the quality of many schools."

In the End
For the past three years educators, parents and students around the state have seen monumental changes in their public education system. Schools have not been given the opportunity to “stand on both feet” where these changes are concerned because as soon as they try to adapt, more mandates and accountability are thrown at them.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.