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Constant changes muddle picture as test scores rise

The latest round of state standardized academic test scores showed gains both across New York State and locally.

But rather than celebrate the largest bump since New York adopted new tests tied to the Common Core Learning Standards, education officials reported the increases with caution. They suggested that changes in how the tests were given – not actual improvement by schools and students – may have accounted for the gains.

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia also warned against making comparisons with previous years, which is typically done to evaluate schools and teachers.

“It’s not an apples to apples comparison and should be viewed in that context,” Elia said during a news conference when the results were released Friday.

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DATABASE: See how students in your school fared on the 2016 tests

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So goes the latest turn in the accountability system in New York, where assessing school performance has been muddled by changes in standards, so-called cut scores and how tests are administered.

This year, for example, students had more time to answer fewer test questions, so the modest gains may simply reflect that students had an easier time taking the exams, not that they learned more.

Statewide, the percentage of students deemed proficient went from 31.3 percent to 37.9 percent in reading and from 38.1 percent to 39.1 percent in math. The proficiency rate in both subjects is up from 31.1 percent in 2013 when the state first administered the Common Core tests.

Elia acknowledged that the testing changes make it difficult for the public to assess growth over time, and noted that the results should be viewed as a snapshot that can be used to compare one school or district to another. She said that more changes are on the way as the state continues to adjust its accountability system in response to public criticism.

“In this world, and particularly given the environment we have in New York, there are all sorts of changes being made,” she said. “Our goal is to make those changes in a reasonable and effective way.”

That’s little comfort, however, to schools and educators being held accountable for how students perform on the test, and whether they make progress. Some schools placed in receivership face an outside takeover if they do not show improvement, and teachers continue to face the threat that test scores will eventually be used in their evaluations.

And while this year’s changes were intended to calm public criticism of the Common Core, they may have just fueled concerns and confusion among parents, who continued to opt their children out of the tests in record numbers.

“With the increased percentages of refusals, ongoing manipulation of cut scores and persistent problems with the assessments themselves, these tests should be deemed invalid and discontinued,” said Heidi Indelicato, a Lancaster parent and member of Western New Yorkers for Public Education. “Parents will not be deceived as very little has changed. Opt-out must continue until real progress is made.”

Accountability changes

New York has administered standardized tests to its students for years, and in 2006 started giving math and reading exams to all children in grades three through eight to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Since then, however, various changes at the state level have made it difficult to gauge performance over time and fueled criticism that the accountability system is being gamed for political purposes.

In 2009, for example, New York drew criticism when schools made sizable gains on state tests but failed to show comparable improvement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the only national measure of student performance.

Critics argued that the state decreased the number of items students needed to answer correctly so that more would pass, according to a report by the Center on Education Policy, which tracks how states implement federal education policy. In response, New York officials raised what are commonly called cut scores – the level at which students are deemed proficient – resulting in a significant drop in performance and fueling confusion among parents.

“The New York controversy is part of a larger ongoing debate among policymakers and researchers about the extent to which gains in state test scores reflect real increases in learning,” the Center on Education Policy reported in a 2010 briefing.

Schools started to make progress toward the new target until 2013 when the state again changed its testing program by giving a new test tied to the Common Core. That year, districts’ performances plummeted an average of 25 percentage points in reading and 34 points in math.

The drop in scores drew significant attention, in part because it came as state leaders sought to use the test results in teacher evaluations. Parents, unions and teachers lodged an aggressive campaign against the new tests, ultimately driving what became the largest opt-out movement in the country, as parents had their children refuse to take the tests.

Despite a push by state leaders to get more students to take the tests, this year the number of children refusing the exams increased from 20 percent to 21 percent, adding another layer of complexity to whether the results are a reliable reflection of school performance.

“I can’t fathom how (the Education Department), any district or any person can pretend to claim anything about these test scores when over 20 percent of (New York State) students did not take the test,” said Amy Gipe, an East Aurora parent and member of Western New Yorkers for Public Education. ”Statisticians must cringe at this continued misuse of data.”

Still, Elia on Friday maintained her support of the Common Core standards, and said the state will continue to make changes based on public feedback.

Any changes, however, could also be influenced by national politics and the looming presidential elections. Republican nominee Donald Trump says he would do away with the Common Core. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has taken a more midline approach, but also has strong backing from the two national teachers unions, which have been critical of how states like New York implemented the standards.

“The high stakes associated with them got people to pay more attention and the deficiencies in the data became more glaring,” said David C. Bloomfield, professor of education at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. “Any 2016 analysis requires a deeper dive than just looking at the numbers. The importance of the scores has diminished.”

A moving target

Meanwhile, school and district leaders find themselves in an unenviable position – trying to figure out what to make of the latest testing data.

And in some cases, that means coming up with their own ways to assess student progress, rather than relying exclusively on a moving state target.

“There have been ever-changing politics around the learning standards,” said Frontier School Superintendent Bret Apthorpe. “Movement over time is critical to student achievement. You have these high standards and it’s critical that you assess and track kids’ trajectory to meeting those standards. But it’s been unstable and ever changing.”

The district is now coming up with its own standards and ways to assess student learning, which officials say will exceed the expectations of New York State and the Common Core. But by developing them locally, school leaders hope to gain confidence from parents, more than half of whom opted their children out of this year’s state tests.

Buffalo school officials, who themselves have faced a moving accountability target for years, are taking a similar approach, putting their faith in Superintendent Kriner Cash’s “New Education Bargain.”

Leaders here have become accustomed to navigating the ever-changing targets that often come with the state accountability system, and for many of those schools that come with consequences, including possibly facing an outside takeover.

Now, rather than focus on the tests, they are turning their attention to classroom practices.

“If the focus on improving classroom instruction is clear and intentional, students will thrive,” said Will Keresztes, chief of intergovernmental affairs, planning, and community engagement for the Buffalo district. “Speculating on testing changes is not a strategy for improving student outcomes.”

News reporter Jay Rey contributed to this report. email: tlankes@buffnews.com

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