Education, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo told lawmakers last year in his annual State of the State address, “is the area, my friends, where I think we need to do the most reform … This is the year to roll up our sleeves and take on the dramatic challenge that has eluded us for so many years.”
In March the governor introduced and the legislature passed the Education Transformation Act. Under the new law 50 percent of a teacher’s job performance rating was intended to be tied to statewide standardized tests. The tests are based on federal Common Core standards for third through 12th graders implemented by New York in 2013 that link grant money to scores. However, when it came time for the exams last spring, 240,000 students in grades three through eight, or 20 percent of test-eligible New York public school pupils, opted out. By the end of the year Cuomo was singing a different tune.
“Simply put, the education system fails without parental trust,” Cuomo said in this year’s State of the State on January 13, acknowledging the growth of the opt-out movement.
Following the recommendation of a task force the governor charged with reviewing implementation of the Common Core curriculum, Cuomo had already announced in December a four-year moratorium on putting the statewide tests toward teacher evaluations.
“People are fed up,” said Jia Lee, a parent and special education teacher in Manhattan who opted her child out of the test and refused to administer it to her students. “We’ve been able to build a grassroots movement, and it is growing because parents and teachers, and even some administrators, are getting frustrated and angry.”
Teachers and parents have widely complained that emphasizing the tests forces educators to teach to the tests and that the exams are not grade-level appropriate and are biased against students with special education needs and English language learners. One analogy testing opponents frequently use to explain the futility of the high-stakes exams is that of a hospital patient. Instead of treating what’s ailing New York’s public school system — a lack of funding and resources — students are perpetually subjected to tests.
“We already know which schools are struggling,” said Jeanette Deutermann, a leader of the opt-out movement in Long Island. “It’s the same schools year after year; New York City schools, Buffalo schools, inner-city schools that are desperate for money and resources. Why spend all that money on identifying them again and again? Instead let’s take that money and put it into schools that are struggling.”
On top of these criticisms, the tests are simply ineffective measures of student and teacher performance. The six-day exams only cover reading and math, yet the results have been used to evaluate teachers across the academic spectrum.
“I am curious to hear how teachers can improve the scores of kids we don’t teach,” remarked Jake Jacobs, a New York City art teacher whose rating went from “effective” to “developing” last year based on his students’ math scores.
The test results are measured using complex statistical algorithms, a method known as Value Added Modeling (VAM), that predict how well a student is expected to perform and then penalize teachers whose students fail to meet formulaic projections. A judge with the State Supreme Court in Albany is set to rule over whether to throw out the tests used to evaluate a fourth-grade teacher in Great Neck, New York, who was rated effective in 2013-2014 and ineffective the following year, despite her students’ test scores being virtually the same.
Big Data in the Classroom
Last March, lawmakers approved Cuomo’s Education Transformation Act. Under the law, student performance measures, i.e. standardized test results, account for 50 percent of teacher evaluations, up from 40 percent. Teachers rated ineffective at least three years in a row could be terminated.
“The theory behind testing is that if you have more data, you’ll be able to figure out what works,” said Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters, a parent-based group that advocates smaller classes and student privacy.
Under pressure from Class Size Matters, New York withdrew from inBloom in 2014. Founded with $100 million in seed money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation, the nonprofit start-up sought to collect not just test scores but a range of private student information — Social Security numbers, health and social service records, economic status, disciplinary records — and to store the data on cloud-based servers. The stated intention was to track students from kindergarten until graduation, but Haimson sees more nefarious motives.
The aim of all this data collection, she said, “is to push education into private hands and generate a thriving market in education software. The Department of Education and groups like the Gates Foundation seem to feel that technology is going to solve our education problems even though there is no evidence to support that.”
Jia Lee admits that assessing student growth “is a key part of teaching” but says the results shouldn’t be used to penalize educators. “We’re constantly assessing our students to see how they’re making progress. But they’re using those tests to go after teachers and to close schools.”
Lee is running for president of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) as part of the Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE) caucus. Her supporters accuse the current union leadership of complicity in devising New York’s high-stakes testing regime. Despite public statements decrying high-stakes testing, the UFT’s current president Michael Mulgrew opened the door to the exam blitz in an agreement reached with Cuomo and Education Commissioner John King in 2012. It stipulated that test scores would account for 40 percent of teacher evaluations.
“We need a different level of engagement from our union,” said Lee. “It’s going to take real organizing power.”
A taste of that organizing power came during last spring’s opt-out actions, which included approximately 80,000 third through eighth graders opting out on Long Island, where Deutermann organizes, and some teachers, including Lee, refusing to administer the tests. However, Cuomo’s apparent retreat has turned out to be more ambiguous than it first appeared.
“Initially my reaction was positive,” Lee said. “In my mind I was thinking, is this really happening? But there’s still a state law in place that says we have to be evaluated by some kind of statistical metric. What that is, we don’t know.”
Students will still take the Common Core tests and the Transformation Act remains in place, meaning that teacher evaluations will continue to be based on student performance data, making it likely that tests implemented by local school districts will take the place of the Common Core exams to assess educators.
Still Opting Out
Deutermann plans on refusing to let her children take the tests again this year. “Opting out isn’t just done to change political policies or to get legislators to take notice,” she said. “It’s also about protecting kids from six days of testing that is completely inappropriate.”
As New York stepped back from high-stakes testing, so did the federal government. Congress passed and President Obama signed into law the Every Student Succeeds Act, which allows states to devise their own education standards rather than follow Common Core and no longer mandates that states tie teacher evaluations to test scores in order to receive grant money.
Both developments are signs that grassroots efforts led by teachers and parents are making an impact. But a new trend in the education industry has some advocates shuddering. It’s been called “stealth assessment” or“competency-based” learning. Education companies like Dreambox, Scholastic and the Khan Academy have developed software that registers every answer students give as they learn reading and math. “The companies that develop this software argue that it presents the opportunity to eliminate the time, cost and anxiety of ‘stop and test’ in favor of passively collecting data on students’ knowledge over a semester, year or entire school career,” noted NPR education correspondent and author of The Test, Anya Kamenetz.
In other words, in the future big standardized tests could be a thing of the past. Students, and by extension their teachers, would simply be tested all the time.
Instead of tweaking the current teacher evaluation system or moving towards ubiquitous data collection models, Deutermann believes it's time for a paradigm shift. “Why not start focusing on the things that really matter: parent input, student input. Creative lesson plans, mentoring programs for new teachers?”
Another key component to real education reform adds Leonie Haimson: increased funding. “We need to spend money on things we know work like smaller classes, more schools and more teachers.”