The BenCen Blog

Informing Public Discourse in the Hudson Valley and Across the State

Author: Robin Jacobowitz

How Low Can you Go?! Scoring “well below proficient” on New York State Tests

by Fred Smith, retired administrative analyst with the New York City public school system, with Robin Jacobowitz, Director of Education Projects at the Benjamin Center.
Each year, the New York State Education Department releases a statement summarizing how well students performed on exams in English Language Arts (ELA) and math. The April 2018 tests were given to nearly one million students statewide. In September, SED announced that 45.2 percent of students were proficient on the ELA tests, an increase of 5.4 percent over last year.

But that still leaves 54.8 percent who were not—over half of the 966,000 students who took the ELA. Who are these kids, the majority who do not meet the standard of proficiency? And what do their scores reveal about the test?

Our recently reported research, New York State’s School Tests are an Object Lesson in Failure, has focused on students’ floundering over a significant part of the ELA—the written, or constructed response questions. We were particularly interested in the students who received zeroes on that set of questions, indicating complete befuddlement when they tried to provide intelligible answers.

In this post, we look at the big picture, children’s overall performance on the ELA from 2012 to 2018, and further investigate the kids that the New York State Testing Program is leaving behind. They are the ones who, in SED’s terms, do not even meet basic proficiency standards on the tests.

As in our previous studies, we focus on children in grades 3 and 4, the youngest test takers. Further, it is important to note that there have been significant changes to the test itself in recent years—a new test publisher, fewer questions, and unlimited time to complete the exams—that thwart comparison and confound interpretation of the results from year to year, particularly the latter years. Continue reading

There’s a Good Chance Your Kid was Baffled Reading These Test Questions. How About You?

by Fred Smith, retired administrative analyst with the New York City public school system, with Robin Jacobowitz, Director of Education Projects at the Benjamin Center.

Our recently reported research, New York State’s School Tests are an Object Lesson in Failure, indicates that many students have been unable to understand readings and write intelligible answers to Common Core-based questions about them on the statewide English Language Arts (ELA) tests.

Remember: Parents and teachers complained to no avail that reading passages on the tests were developmentally inappropriate, particularly for 3rd and 4th graders. Here we ask: Were these critics right all along?

A Recap
Just to catch you up, our first report concentrated on the overall impact of the statewide exams on the 1.2 million students taking them each year. This included separate analyses for the 440,000 children in New York City—37 percent of the State’s test population. These tests were prepared by Pearson Inc. We showed that they had the most dire effect on eight-and nine-year-olds after they were aligned with the Common Core Learning Standards. For third graders the switch to Common Core-aligned exams resulted in a surge from 11 percent of students who got zeroes—meaning their answers were deemed entirely incomprehensible—to 21 percent. And for fourth graders, the jump was from five percent to 15 percent.

English Language Learners, students with disabilities, and black and Hispanic students were particularly hard hit. This was clear from the data we obtained from the New York City Department of Education, which allowed us to analyze the test’s impact on each of these groups.

Two follow-up blogs dug into both the broad impact the tests had, and the specific impact they’ve had on minority and English-as-a-second language learners.

Read and Weep
Now, to the readings and questions that stumped our kids. Continue reading

In New York State’s Tests The Achievement Gap Has Grown Worse

by Fred Smith, retired administrative analyst with the New York City public school system, with Robin Jacobowitz, Director of Education Projects at the Benjamin Center

New York’s Common Core testing has failed our children. Our recent series, New York State’s School Tests are an Object Lesson in Failure, shows that many students are unable to effectively answer questions on the written portion of the English Language Arts (ELA) tests. (You can access any part of this series via the links box at right.)

A BenCen Series
New York State’s

Testing Failure

Your taxes are paying for a deeply flawed testing system. This series looks at those flaws — and at fixes.

Our analyses show that a substantial percentage of children, particularly third and fourth-grade kids, were unable to write comprehensible answers to three or more written response questions out of the nine or 10 on each ELA exam. That is, they received a zero score on at least three of these questions, which were billed as measuring analytic reasoning and critical thinking. A zero means that a trained scorer deems a response to be “totally inaccurate, unintelligible, or indecipherable.”

If that’s not disheartening enough, we found that the news was even worse for black and Hispanic students in NYC. New York City data allowed us to look at the impact of the exams on different groups; we found that black and Hispanic students received high percentages of zeros on at least three of the questions. It is not insignificant that black and Hispanic students comprise 68 percent of the citywide test population.

Continue reading

Beyond Despair! New York State ELA Tests Are Failing Our Kids

by Fred Smith, retired administrative analyst with the New York City public school system, with Robin Jacobowitz, Director of Education Projects at the Benjamin Center

New York’s Common Core testing hasn’t worked.  The tests have consistently failed our children, especially the youngest kids, English Language Learners, students with disabilities and minorities. In our most recent research on this subject, we found that far too few students are able to tackle the written portion of the English Language Arts (ELA). For a closer look at this subject, see the entire series, New York State’s School Tests are an Object Lesson in Failure.

This series and report examined results for all 1.2 million students in grades 3-8 across New York State from 2012–2016 when Pearson, Inc. was the test publisher. More detailed information was provided for children in New York City by its Department of Education. Students there make up 37 percent of the test population. This allowed us to analyze data within subgroups for the questions that required students to construct a response.

Our analysis shows that a substantial percentage of children were unable to write comprehensible answers to five or more questions out of the nine or ten on each ELA exam. That is, they received a zero score on at least five of these questions, meaning that their responses were deemed to be “totally inaccurate, unintelligible, or indecipherable” by trained scorers.

We call this criterion the Threshold of Despair.

A dramatic change occurred when exams were aligned with the Common Core. NYC’s overall data show that in 2012 fewer than five percent of third and fourth graders crossed this threshold. But, with the advent of Common Core-aligned exams in 2013, the percentage more than doubled: yes, that means it got worse, not better.

Continue reading

What You are Voting on in Tomorrow’s School Budget & Board Elections

Tomorrow, people across New York State will head to the polls. On the ballot? The election of school board members to govern local public school districts. And – very importantly – there will also be the chance to vote “yes” or “no” on the only budget directly put before the electorate, the one to support K12 public schools.

Think about this as you’re “pulling that lever”: the local share of school budgets, the part paid for by your property taxes, has been increasing over time because the state has been paying proportionally less towards the general fund, effectively pushing off a greater portion of the tab to you and your property tax paying neighbors.

Overall, too, we’re still under-funding our schools, with an impact that falls more heavily on schools in poorer districts where there are fewer local resources. Here is the trend over time in local, state, and federal funding, as a percentage of total revenue, for our Ulster County school districts:

Continue reading

Failing the Test

by Fred Smith, retired administrative analyst with the New York City public school system, with Robin Jacobowitz, Director of Education Projects at the Benjamin Center

It’s that time of year again.

This week, approximately 1.2 million children in grades 3-8 sat for the annual New York State tests in English Language Arts (ELA). Math exams will be given in early May.

The State Education Department (SED) has been testing students in reading and math for decades. But in 2013, SED began administration of Common Core-aligned tests. In 2011, NCS Pearson, Inc. was awarded a five-year contract to develop these exams. Pearson received $38.8 million for its work.

From the outset, some parents and educators questioned the value and impact of Common Core-based testing. Parents and teaching professionals were concerned about the ambiguity and inappropriateness of the questions, the length of the assessment, the frustrating experiences English Language Learners and students with disabilities had with the exams, and the lack of transparency that thwarted scrutiny of the testing program. There was particular concern about the developmental appropriateness of the reading passages and items used to assess eight- and nine-year-old students in grades 3 and 4.

Initially, these complaints were dismissed by officials as unfounded, the scattered griping of overprotective parents or a sign of low expectations for children. But eventually the Education Department made some adjustments in its program – it shortened tests by one or two questions, removed time limits and, this year, testing will take place over four days instead of six.

Still, after several years of implementation, it is fair to investigate the quality of this ongoing program, which targets more than one million students each year and costs taxpayers millions of dollars. Student performance on these instruments is widely reported and commented on. We need to flip the accountability question and now ask, “How did the tests perform?”  Continue reading

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