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State Board Of Regents Pushes For Change

Some members of the state Board of Regents want to take a harder look at the state’s third- through eighth-grade testing system.

Among items discussed recently by the Board of Regents were the 2019 English language arts and mathematics test results released recently by the state Education Department.

THE RESULTS

In English language arts, 45.4 percent of all test takers in third through eighth grades scored at the proficient level, an increase of .2% from 2018. In math, 46.7% of all test takers in third through eighth grades scored at the proficient level, a 2.2% increase from 44.5% in 2018.

In Chautauqua County, students saw a decline in proficiency scores from 2018 to 2019 in ELA and math state assessments. The county decreased from 38% in 2018 to 36% in 2019. In math, the county overall increased from 38% in 2018 to 39% in 2019. In Cattaraugus County, students proficiency rating remained the same in ELA at 41% and in math students increased in proficiency to 49% in 2019.

REGENTS’ RESPONSES

Rather than take aim at the results, many members of the Board of Regents took issue with various aspects ot the state’s testing system or the implementation of previous policies.

Regent Kathleen Cashin from Kings County said she hopes the Board of Regents gives thought to the tests themselves. One of Cashin’s requests is for the state’s testing provider to provide an error matrix that can be used to help teachers.

“Every year it’s amazing, we go up one point or down one-tenth of a point, what do we get from this?” she asked. “It’s almost ridiculous. We get the test, the one point up and the five points down or whatever it is, in almost October. So, while we’re with this company, as long as we’re still with them, and I hope it’s short-lived, but as long as we’re with them I think we should require or want them to give us information for teaching. Get them to give us what skills need to be taught as a result emanating from this test so that we don’t waste another year of a tenth of a point up, 2.3 points down. What do we get from that? … We go through this every year, and what do we learn?”

Regent Roger Tilles picked up on Cashin’s point, adding that the tests were initially supposed to be a low-stress diagnostic tool. That has changed over the years, Tilles said, starting with the inclusion of the 3-8 tests as part of the formula to grade teachers. Placing the tests into the middle of a political firestorm was the opposite of what the tests were supposed to be when originally pitched.

“This was diagnostic before the politicians got involved,” Tilles said. “We looked at it and as diagnostic tests, we were told you can’t use the same tests that are high stakes for evaluating teachers to do diagnostic tests. That’s where we sort of went off the track to do what you’re asking for and I would hope that as we look at new assessments that we move toward that ability.”

Regent Judith Johnson, who represents Dutchess, Orange, Putnam, Rockland and Westchester counties, spoke of President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind program and what the president termed the soft bigotry of low expectations during a 2000 speech before the NAACP. Johnson asked if the state Education Department can analyze the skills, competencies and test items on a basis of high- and low-need school districts so that policy makers can see if new strategies can be developed.

Statistics presented show that low-need school districts have more proficient students than do high-need school districts, but Johnson wanted a more detailed analysis of the situation.

“It’s almost 20 years later, and I meant to bring this article in to you but I can’t find it, but the headline reads ‘It’s better to be born wealthy to be successful in school.’ That’s the headline. It’s a serious article, it’s not meant to be in jest. So, what we’ve learned over the last 20 years is that it’s best to be born wealthy if you want to perform at a high level on these tests. That’s unacceptable,” Johnson said. Then, referring to a protest over vaccinations in the hallway outside the meeting, Johnson said, “Candidly these are the moms that should be out in that hallway making a lot of noise. It’s just totally unacceptable.”

Regent Susan Mittler questioned the continuing struggle to increase proficiency and wondering if the problem lies with teachers, curriculum or the tests.

“When I look at this data and I see how many schools, I’m looking at the high point and all you get is something like 78.5% (proficient) as your high point, there’s something wrong with our system. There’s nothing wrong with our kids. Our kids are fine. So what is it that we need to do? I want to start with the fact that I think that the assessment system is inappropriate. The language is inappropriate. The content is inappropriate. The content is there, we have curriculum, but I cannot believe that more than half, more like 60 percent, of our students can’t do the fundamental mathematics or pass a fundamental English language arts assessment. There’s something wrong with what we’re measuring and how we’re measuring, and we need to take a look at it.”

Regent T. Andrew Brown, Regents vice chancellor from Rochester, spoke of the success of the Rochester City School District’s universal pre-kindergarten program while wondering how children coming through such a successful program can struggle to be proficient by the time they reach third grade. Dr. Kim Wilkins, state assistant commissioner for innovation and school reform, said children tend to do better earlier in their school careers with proficiency levels decreasing further in fifth, sixth and seventh grades. That continues in some districts into high schools that see higher than acceptable dropout rates.

Regent Wade Norwood, also from Rochester, said perhaps one reason why the Rochester City School District’s pre-kindergarten program is successful is that it isn’t a typical school setting.

“The real key is having a play-based experiential curriculum which is really what Regent (Luis) Reyes has been saying very much since he joined this board,” Norwood said. “We have to recognize that disappears in most of our high-needs districts in those K-3 experiences because of districts being preoccupied with trying to move these charts and needles.”

Finally, Regent Lester W. Young of Brooklyn suggested more attention be paid to the number of students whose test scores fall into Level 1, the lowest of the four scoring categories. He noted that often the Board of Regents doesn’t receive reports on state assessments that include the Level 1 scores, but an examination of children who score poorly on the state tests may help create a better system in the future.

“To underscore what my colleagues talked about that there’s something wrong, many of the most vulnerable places in the state have as many as 70 and in some cases as many as 80 percent of their students performing at Levels 1 and 2,” Young said. “If you look at it over time, the other thing that you notice, and I understand some will say we were told not to compare one year to the next, but one of the things you notice is it’s pretty much the same number of children who were in Level 1 last year are in Level 1 this year. … So I’m not suggesting that anyone is being purposefully misleading, but when we say we’re closing the gap, there is a difference between truth and poetry. The vast majority of children in certain places are not moving at all. It’s very troubling because if we’re only interested in proficiency, what about children who perform at Level 1? Aren’t we interested in how they’re doing?”

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