The New York State Education Department (NYSED) released school report cards Thursday, February 17. A close look at the report cards reveals a very important, unreported story. We now have an absurd situation in New York State. For many schools districts to hit their accountability targets, they will have to improve at a rate that the NYSED does not consider credible.
“We need…a new set of assessments that are rigorous and dependable.”
In the spring of 2009, Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl H. Tisch was widely quoted saying that she was “skeptical” of the rate of improvement of grade 3 – 8 test scores. For example, between 2007 and 2009 New York City improved grade 3 – 8 English language arts (ELA) pass rates from 51% to 69%, a 35% increase. Chancellor Tisch also stated that the tests were too “predictable” and lacked “rigor.” She found the scores “suspicious.” The tests needed to be more “defensible,” and “dependable.”
In response, the NYSED made the 2010 ELA and math assessments more robust and raised the scoring cut points that determine the level of performance a student has achieved (i.e., not meeting, partially meeting, meeting or meeting learning standards with distinction). Consequently, across the state fewer students met learning standards, lowering schools’ test scores.
In fact, test scores dropped considerably and in poor urban, suburban and rural areas precipitously. Although the recently released school report cards use the old cut points for determining whether a school’s scores hit 2010 accountability targets, the new, higher cut points will be used to calculate 2011 accountability. At the same time the NYSED did not lower the 2011 accountability targets.
Can schools reasonably achieve their accountability targets with the new, higher cut points?
Consider this example. The first chart illustrates a typical rural school district’s five-year ELA test score trend based on the old cut points. The second chart substitutes 2010 scores calculated using the new cut points. Note the considerable decline in the district’s 2010 scores when the new, higher cut points are used. All student performance drops 17%, economically disadvantaged student (Low SES) performance declines 27% and student with disability (SWD) performance plummets 53%. (Such decline in district performance is common across the state: only the slope of the decline varies.)
The 2011 ELA accountability target is 155. Therefore, to hit its targets, this district’s economically disadvantaged students will have to improve by 38% and its students with disabilities by 154% in a single year. The NYSED has a complex formula for achieving what it calls “safe harbor.” Based on that formula, the students with disabilities will have to score 75, a 23% increase. Each of those rates of improvement surpasses thresholds that provoked Chancellor Tisch’s skepticism in 2009.
Plot the NYSED’s targets out to the 2014-15 school year and the situation becomes almost surreal. Economically disadvantaged student performance must increase by 79%, more than 12% per year. Student with disability performance must increase by a whopping 228%, nearly 27% per year. Just to achieve safe harbor each of the five years, students with disabilities will have to improve by at least 93% or 14% per year.
Basically, what we have are two trains barreling into a wreck. The NYSED decided both to increase test scoring difficulty and to maintain aggressive improvement targets from 2011 through 2015. Considered separately on their own merits, both decisions are probably rational and defensible. However, taken together as part of a complex system, they produce this absurdity: To hit their accountability targets based on the new scoring cut points, many school districts will have to improve at a rate that the state does not consider credible.
The inherent contradiction within the current NYSED accountability system is exposed. Across the state, school children, their parents, guardians, teachers, principals, superintendents, boards of education and communities at large now face a no-win situation. If a district such as the one discussed above hits its targets, it will be treated with skepticism; if it doesn’t, it will fail.