eyes on opt-out

Elia says supporting opt-outs ‘unethical,’ vows to keep pushing feds for waiver

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
New York State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia.

The head of New York’s education department came down hard Thursday on teachers who encouraged the growing boycott of state tests this year.

“I think opt-out is something that is not reasonable,” State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said at an event hosted by the teacher advocacy group Educators 4 Excellence. “I am absolutely shocked if, and I don’t know that this happened, but if any educators supported and encouraged opt-outs. I think it’s unethical.”

Elia’s comments came after an unprecedented number of students declined to take the New York’s English and math exams this spring. Tallies released last week put the total at about one in five students statewide, though the opt-out movement had a smaller presence in New York City.

The commissioner’s remarks are in line with her previous comments about the tests, which Elia has defended as tools that help educators guide their work, track achievement gaps between student groups, and indicate when individual schools aren’t measuring up. But parents and advocates who have encouraged the opt-out movement say the tests don’t provide useful information, encourage schools to narrow their curriculum, and feed into unhelpful teacher evaluations.

Elia is under pressure to keep the movement from growing, which could jeopardize teacher evaluations and assessments of struggling schools in some districts. Since starting in July, she’s announced that the state is replacing the controversial test-maker Pearson and called attention to a planned review of the Common Core standards.

At another point in the event Thursday, the commissioner defended teachers against critics of the education system, saying that pundits shouldn’t direct blame toward those doing the work of helping students learn.

“I’m a commissioner that will never bash teachers,” she said. “We can’t look at making the teacher the scapegoat for problems that may have existed in bureaucracies we have to fix.”

Elia also criticized the federal education department for not allowing the state to make changes that could have reduced or eased testing for students with severe disabilities and some English learners.

“I believe we have not done as a profession, and the education leaders of this country through [the Department of Education], have not done what’s necessary to put in place appropriate assessments for kids who are severely disabled,” she said.

This spring, federal officials rejected New York’s appeal to exempt English learners who have attended U.S. schools for less than two years from taking the tests. That waiver would have also provided more flexibility to adjust the difficulty level of tests taken by students with severe disabilities.

“I’ve had conversations with U.S. DOE about it, and we need to get there,” Elia said. “It is on my agenda.”

ASD scores

In Tennessee’s turnaround district, 9 in 10 young students fall short on their first TNReady exams

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

Nine out of 10 of elementary- and middle-school students in Tennessee’s turnaround district aren’t scoring on grade level in English and math, according to test score data released Thursday.

The news is unsurprising: The Achievement School District oversees 32 of the state’s lowest-performing schools. But it offers yet another piece of evidence that the turnaround initiative has fallen far short of its ambitious original goal of vaulting struggling schools to success.

Around 5,300 students in grades 3-8 in ASD schools took the new, harder state exam, TNReady, last spring. Here’s how many scored “below” or “approaching,” meaning they did not meet the state’s standards:

  • 91.8 percent of students in English language arts;
  • 91.5 percent in math;
  • 77.9 percent in science.

View scores for all ASD schools in our spreadsheet

In all cases, ASD schools’ scores fell short of state averages, which were all lower than in the past because of the new exam’s higher standards. About 66 percent of students statewide weren’t on grade level in English language arts, 62 percent weren’t on grade level in math, and 41 percent fell short in science.

ASD schools also performed slightly worse, on average, than the 15 elementary and middle schools in Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone, the district’s own initiative for low-performing schools. On average, about 89 percent of iZone students in 3-8 weren’t on grade level in English; 84 percent fell short of the state’s standards in math.

The last time that elementary and middle schools across the state received test scores, in 2015, ASD schools posted scores showing faster-than-average improvement. (Last year’s tests for grades 3-8 were canceled because of technical problems.)

The low scores released today suggest that the ASD’s successes with TCAP, the 2015 exam, did not carry over to the higher standards of TNReady.

But Verna Ruffin, the district’s new chief of academics, said the scores set a new bar for future growth and warned against comparing them to previous results.

“TNReady has more challenging questions and is based on a different, more rigorous set of expectations developed by Tennessee educators,” Ruffin said in a statement. “For the Achievement School District, this means that we will use this new baseline data to inform instructional practices and strategically meet the needs of our students and staff as we acknowledge the areas of strength and those areas for improvement.”

Some ASD schools broke the mold and posted some strong results. Humes Preparatory Middle School, for example, had nearly half of students meet or exceed the state’s standards in science, although only 7 percent of students in math and 12 percent in reading were on grade level.

Thursday’s score release also included individual high school level scores. View scores for individual schools throughout the state as part of our spreadsheet here.

Are Children Learning

School-by-school TNReady scores for 2017 are out now. See how your school performed

PHOTO: Zondra Williams/Shelby County Schools
Students at Wells Station Elementary School in Memphis hold a pep rally before the launch of state tests, which took place between April 17 and May 5 across Tennessee.

Nearly six months after Tennessee students sat down for their end-of-year exams, all of the scores are now out. State officials released the final installment Thursday, offering up detailed information about scores for each school in the state.

Only about a third of students met the state’s English standards, and performance in math was not much better, according to scores released in August.

The new data illuminates how each school fared in the ongoing shift to higher standards. Statewide, scores for students in grades 3-8, the first since last year’s TNReady exam was canceled amid technical difficulties, were lower than in the past. Scores also remained low in the second year of high school tests.

“These results show us both where we can learn from schools that are excelling and where we have specific schools or student groups that need better support to help them achieve success – so they graduate from high school with the ability to choose their path in life,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said in a statement.

Did some schools prepare teachers and students better for the new state standards, which are similar to the Common Core? Was Memphis’s score drop distributed evenly across the city’s schools? We’ll be looking at the data today to try to answer those questions.

Check out all of the scores in our spreadsheet or on the state website and add your questions and insights in the comments.