Frustration with new state tests: Too soon, off the mark

GUILDERLAND — Like school districts across the state, Guilderland saw its student test scores drop as the state shifted to measure the new Common Core Standards.

The school board on Tuesday night reviewed those scores, released on Aug. 7.

Statewide, 31.1 percent of students in third through eighth grades were considered proficient in English and 31 percent in math. At Guilderland, 48.3 percent of students earned scores on the English tests showing they were proficient, and 50.9 percent did so in math.

“We can’t worry about these numbers so much,” Superintendent Marie Wiles said after the meeting. “They don’t reflect that, all of a sudden, we’re not doing well. They do reflect a dramatic increase in expectations for kids.”

She also noted that the state did not give schools a chance to prepare, or fully implement curricula, for the Common Core Standards.

“We’re not at all surprised,” Wiles concluded. “If you’re not fully prepared, you don’t fully perform.”

Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Demian Singleton, who is tasked with analyzing the data, agreed.

“The results are what we expected,” he told The Enterprise yesterday. “We had kids being tested on material that, frankly, they hadn’t been exposed to…As the education commissioner has said, they fully expected scores to decline…It’s a difficult one to swallow.”

Singleton believes the Common Core Standards have more merit than the New York State Learning standards they replaced. But the problem with the tests given last spring, he said, is two-fold.

First, students were not taught the material for the new standards.  The fifth-grade math program in Guilderland was aligned with the standards last year and the test results were comparatively higher with, for example, 66 percent of Altamont fifth-graders and 62 percent of Westmere fifth-graders scoring at the proficient level. However, Singleton notes, the results are cumulative and those students weren’t learning math according to the new standards in their earlier years.

Second, Singleton believes the state tests, which were not developed by the education department but rather by Pearson Education, are not reflective of the Common Core Standards.

For example, he said, the new standards focus on students being creative. “They have to do not only quality writing, but use a host of resources, like multi-media, to express themselves,” he said. Such aptitude wasn’t part of the standardized test.

The Common Core Standards focus “on 21st-Century literacy, not just pulling evidence from a passage,” as the tests did, Singleton said.

All of the information that Guilderland has from the state on its test results is posted on the district’s website. This consists only of percentages at each of four levels for grades three through eight at each school.

The state has lagged, Singleton said, in distributing information to districts that is more specific and useful. Figures were promised for last Monday, but nothing has arrived, he said.

“The Department will send Individual Student Reports to the Regional Information Centers (RICs) and Big 5 school districts within the next few days,” Jonathan Burman, a spokesman for the State Education Department, responded yesterday in an e-mail to The Enterprise. The Big 5 he is referring to are the Buffalo, New York City, Rochester, Syracuse, and Yonkers school districts.

Burman went on, “RICs will then make them available to school districts. School districts make the final decision on when and how to notify parents.”

“We were also supposed to get guidelines for intervention services,” Singleton went on. “No school in New York State is staffed or ready to provide intervention as currently required.”

The requirements now in place, implemented when scores were not so low, were that students who scored at Level 1 or Level 2 were to be given remedial help.

“As of today, we’re still operating under the old rules,” said Singleton. “There are school districts out there that, sadly, have 85 or 90 percent at Level 1 or 2.”

Guilderland, like districts across the state, is also “waiting to see” how the new scores will affect the evaluation of teachers. As a concession to get federal Race to the Top funds, New York agreed to have part of teacher and principal evaluations be based on student test performance.

“We were supposed to receive the growth scores on Monday,” said Singleton, adding, “It’s an incredibly complex calculation.”

Twenty percent of a Guilderland teacher’s evaluation will be based on a comparison between how students did on tests in the previous spring and how they did on tests in the current spring.

Another 20 percent will be based on a “locally selected assessment,” looking at the growth since students were tested in the fall.

“It’s all-consuming,” Singleton said.  He said that the state “has accountability as the real emphasis,” but concluded of Guilderland, “We are trying to figure out what it all means from a teaching and learning perspective.”

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