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Nevergold challenges linking of tests to school takeovers

A Buffalo School Board member has started an online petition premised on a fundamental question: If state assessment tests are not valid enough to evaluate teachers and students, how can they be used to determine which schools should be placed in receivership?

Board member Barbara A. Seals Nevergold also wants to know how the same tests can be used for admission into some of Buffalo’s highly sought-after criteria-based schools. That selection process is at issue in a complaint being handled by the federal Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights, or OCR.

Nevergold’s effort follows the decision by the state Board of Regents in December to delay using the tests to evaluate teachers, and the recommendation from the governor’s Common Core task force to delay using them to assess either teachers or students.

Still, the tests were a major factor in putting 25 Buffalo schools in receivership. New York classifies receivership schools as among the bottom 5 percent when it comes to performance on the state English language arts, or ELA, and math exams or that have graduation rates below 60 percent for the last three years.

Nevergold’s concerns stem from last year, when Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo convened a 15-member task force to review the Common Core Learning Standards. The task force delivered a report in December that called for reforms of the learning standards, including a reduction in “teaching to the test,” shorter tests and more input from individual school districts, teachers and parents.

But perhaps the most notable recommendation in the 55-page report was that the results of tests aligned to the standards will not be used for teacher evaluations, at least until 2019-20.

Nevergold wants to know how some of the proposed changes – particularly that one – will affect all students and schools across the state, especially in Buffalo.

“What does that mean for schools in receivership? What does that mean for the OCR complaint on equity in admissions? The ELA and math tests are used in the admissions criteria to determine who gets into those schools,” Nevergold said.

Her petition calls on the state Board of Regents and Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia to convene a group to study the implications of the recommendations from Cuomo’s task force.

“When are we going to look at this? Unless we talk about it and are up front with how this impacts us, I think we leave ourselves open to a further OCR complaint where a mother says my child didn’t get accepted” into one of the district’s criteria-based schools “because ELA and math scores are used but the task force said you shouldn’t use these,” Nevergold said.

At the same time, some of the schools in receivership have been struggling with low performance for a decade or more. And while critics point to flaws with the current assessment tests, others say that there still need to be some standards to help judge school performance and keep them accountable, particularly in how they educate African-American and Hispanic students who lag behind and when many students of all races need remediation when they enter college.

Buffalo School Superintendent Kriner Cash said he is aware of Nevergold’s initiative and will speak more with her about it, as well as seek advice on how to proceed.

“We’ll keep working on it,” Cash said in a telephone interview. “But what I don’t want is the work to be brought to a halt or get sidetracked.”

The Buffalo superintendent was in Albany last week attending the 2016-17 state joint legislative budget hearings, where the issue of the validity of the state assessments was brought up in testimony by other educators.

The Buffalo Parent-Teacher Organization also passed a resolution last month asking the Buffalo Board of Education, state legislators and the state Education Department to revoke the state’s commitment to Common Core, related assessments and curriculum materials and the use of the tests to evaluate schools, students and teachers alike.

Along with members of the Board of Regents, Elia – who served on the Cuomo task force – is reviewing the learning standards after receiving input from thousands of people from across the state, Education Department spokesman Jonathan Burman said in a statement. As a result, they have chosen a new test vendor who will work much more closely with teachers to develop state assessments, shorten the length of the state exams and eliminate any evaluation consequences for principals and teachers related to student growth scores for four years, he said.

Elia will continually monitor the impact of the changes on teachers and students, Burman added. However, the statement did not address the use of the assessments in determining which schools should be put under receivership or how the tests may impact the OCR agreement.

To view or sign the petition, go to thepetitionsite.com/takeaction and search Nevergold.

email: dswilliams@buffnews.com