An Open Letter to the Future New York State Education Commissioner

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By Michael Lillis
President, Lakeland Federation of Teachers 

Dear Future New York State Education Commissioner:

Welcome and congratulations on being hired for such an important position.  We wish you the very best success, as the hopes and dreams of millions of school children, their parents, and their teachers hang in the balance.  

You are inheriting a department which has operated without the transparency, respect, or responsiveness stakeholders deserve.  No area represents this debacle more than the issue of the 3-8 Math and ELA assessments. It is important that you quickly become familiar with this problem, and we do not believe that you can rely on your staff to inform you of the most salient issues. This is partly because the source of the problem goes back to 2013, and the State Education Department has had incredible turnover which has disrupted crucial institutional memory. There has also been a significant lack of interest among the assessment staff in SED in having an honest discussion with stakeholders to address the serious assessment issues we face.  

Issues concerning standardized tests are complex, and it is even debatable whether we should be using annual tests, grade level bracketed tests, or any tests at all. Though the issues concerning the state’s 3-8 assessments are vast – and we encourage you to cast a wide net as you seek input from across the state –   we will focus for now on a single aspect that is crucial to fostering equity within our classrooms – the testing benchmarks.

The cut points determine who will receive a 1, 2, 3, or 4 on the test, and they are based on benchmarks established by NYSED. The benchmarks behind the cut points are the most complicated for the general public to understand, and they reveal NYSED’s deeply flawed metrics hiding behind complicated statistics and pretentious language. These metrics do real damage to children because the results are misinterpreted by parents and educators who assume that a score of 3 means “performing at grade level”, which it does not. To parents, the most important question is whether or not their child is developing at grade level. Our 3-8 tests could have measured this, but as you will see, NYSED chose to go in a different, more detrimental direction.  

To begin, how do we define what a score of 1,2,3, or 4 even means on these assessments? The most recent technical report we have was issued in May of 2019 and it is for the 2017 assessments: 

Student performance is classified as Level I, Level II, Level III, or Level IV for the Grades 3–8 ELA and Mathematics Tests. The definitions of performance levels are as follows:

  •  NYS Level I: Students performing at this level are well below proficient in standards for their grade. They demonstrate limited knowledge, skills, and practices embodied by the New York State P–12 Learning Standards for English Language Arts/Literacy or Mathematics that are considered insufficient for the expectations at this grade.
  •  NYS Level II: Students performing at this level are below proficient in standards for their grade. They demonstrate knowledge, skills, and practices embodied by the New York State P–12 Learning Standards for English Language Arts/Literacy or Mathematics that are considered partial but insufficient for the expectations at this grade.
  •  NYS Level III: Students performing at this level are proficient in standards for their grade. They demonstrate knowledge, skills, and practices embodied by the New York State P–12 Learning Standards for English Language Arts/Literacy or Mathematics that are considered sufficient for the expectations at this grade.
  • NYS Level IV: Students performing at this level excel in standards for their grade. They demonstrate knowledge, skills, and practices embodied by the New York State P–12 Learning Standards for English Language Arts/Literacy or Mathematics that are considered more than sufficient for the expectations at this grade.
    The performance level cut scores used to distinguish between Levels I, II, III, and IV were established during the process of standard setting in Summer 2013. The process is described in detail in Section 8 and Appendix P in the 2013 technical report (NYSED, 2013). (NYSED, page 2)

There is a lot to unpack here, but if we simply focus on the difference between a 2 and 3, the point becomes clear.  The descriptor of a 3 indicates that students are “proficient” in the standards and are subsequently “sufficient” to be performing at grade level.  This is simply too sloppy to be unintentional for a group of psychometricians to use in a technical report, and it gets to the heart of the matter at hand.  The definitions of these terms are widely understood among testing specialists and they cannot be used in this way unless the intention is to confuse.

The Webster definition of proficient is “well-advanced”,  while its definition of “sufficient” is “meets the needs.” A student who meets the needs of performing at grade level cannot automatically be considered proficient or well-advanced at grade level.   

So which is it? Are students scoring a 3 well-advanced, or sufficient to be at grade level?  The source of the confusion goes back to the 2013 Technical Report, as that is where the actual definition of proficient was established and it has been indefensible ever since, which is why psychometricians have been forced to confuse readers with contradictory language.  

Here is the methodological summary of the study conducted by NYSED to establish the definition of “proficient”.  In short, NYSED hired the College Board to do the work and the College Board came back with a study that indicated a student who is proficient would score at least a 1630 on the 2013 SAT (in 2013 the SAT was out of 2400 points).  In 2013, this score was in the 66th percentile. Therefore, a student who gets a low 3 is on track to perform among the top third of SAT test takers and a student with a high 2 is not.  When one applies this definition of proficient to the SAT, NYSED is saying that any SAT test taker not among the top third of SAT test takers is below grade level. This is obviously a ridiculous statement, but that is the exact standard we are applying to our 3-8 graders.

To understand how deeply flawed this study performed by the College Board for NYSED was, one only needs to review the study the College Board did to advise colleges and universities about interpreting their own test scores.  For its own purposes, in 2013 the College Board defined “college and career readiness” as a score of 1550. Inexplicably, this was the same year it defined college and career readiness as a score of 1630 for NYSED.  The difference is a 9 percentile point increase in expectations for students. This discrepancy has no justification and is a significant contributor to both the confusion and mismeasurement on our 3-8 assessments.  

Much has been made in recent years about the degree to which teachers have participated in the test construction and development process, but again when we look at the language of the technical reports, we quickly see that all of this participation has been on the appearance of the tests, but teachers were structurally prevented from changing the cut points, or test difficulty, in any meaningful way. Teachers simply have had no way to change these tests to make them more developmentally appropriate or accurate to grade level expectations.    

Page 8 of the 2017 Technical Report defined the role of teacher participants as:

New York State educators are actively involved in ELA and Mathematics test development. New York State educators provide critical input throughout all stages of the test development process, which include rangefinding, educator item review, operational forms construction, passage selection, item writing, and a “Final Eyes” meeting (a final review of the test books prior to printing).

Noticeably absent is any teacher involvement in setting cut points or discussions of overall grade level appropriateness of the exam as a whole.  You simply cannot have meaningful input into a test’s difficulty by looking at each item in isolation; you must look at the test overall and examine the cut points. Page 16 of the 2017 Technical Report explains that the cut points were established in the 2013 process, and teachers have had no input into the cut points since then:

In Summer 2013, after the operational administration of the 2013 tests, a standard setting meeting occurred in Albany where 95 New York State educators went through a rigorous process, guided by the best practices indicated by this intensely studied process, to recommend performance standards for the new tests measuring the CCLS. These recommendations were presented to the Commissioner and the Board of Regents, who, in turn, adopted the recommended standards set forth by the committees. For additional details, see Section 8 and Appendix P in the 2013 technical report (NYSED, 2013).

Here is a link to the relevant Technical Report from 2013 Appendix P begins on page 237.  Appendix P reads as a manual on how to manage a committee for a foregone conclusion. A summary of the process is Pearson psychometricians and NYSED staff generated Performance Level Descriptors (PLDs) based on the flawed College Board study cited above, and then a panel of educators were brought in to select test items that would correspond to these PLDs.  These educators were not selecting items that they, as professionals, thought were grade level appropriate items, rather, they were being tasked with finding test items that correlated with what NYSED and Pearson thought were grade level appropriate.  

There was one final stage where educators were given some freedom to adjust cut points, and it is the most insulting and damning insight into the process NYSED created.  In hundreds of pages of technical reports from 2013 through 2017, the only place where teachers could make an adjustment to the test cut points is on page 244 in Appendix P of the 2013 Technical Report, where vertical articulation is discussed.   The extent of teacher input on cut points is in Step 5, which reads: “If adjustments were deemed necessary, participants were provided constraints on how much they could move the cut scores (This was 4 raw-score points, which was the rounded overall test’s standard error of measurement)”

Teachers have had their input on cut points, or test difficulty, limited to be no more significant than the variables NYSED deemed so insignificant it could not be bothered to control for. This sentence summarizes much of what is wrong with both the tests and the relationship between NYSED and the state’s teachers.

It should be clear to you as the new Commissioner of Education that our 3-8 tests have generated significant controversy, perhaps the largest controversy your office confronts.  What should also be clear after wading through these technical reports is that we have a testing regimen that is highly reliable, but deeply invalid.  

The lack of validity is not new, and unfortunately no longer shocking.  You cannot find a district in the state that has alignment between the 3-8 test scores and the scores earned by those students on high school state exams.  All systems of measurement have error, but there is an extra burden that should exist when what is being measured are children, especially young children. We have a system that annually mismeasures hundreds of thousands of children as not being “sufficient” at grade level performance, when we know that they will be on track to pass their high school exams.  It should not need to be stated how harmful it is for NYSED to tell parents in 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th grade that their child is below grade level. It is all the more damaging if that statement is, in fact, inaccurate.    

NYSED has never conducted an external validation study to determine if any of the assessments conducted since 2013 actually measure what is intended to be measured.  There are two relevant studies that were conducted by the Benjamin Center at SUNY New Paltz. The first is a serious critique of the assumptions that went into the initial College Board study that set New York’s cut points.  The second is an analysis of the dramatic increase in students receiving a score of 0 on test items since the new cut points were changed in 2013.  Combined, both studies paint a stark picture of the issues with having a system of assessment that has erroneously high cut points through solid data.  Additionally, the Hechinger Report did an analysis of every state’s test benchmarks and found New York’s to be the highest. Note that it did not say it was the most accurate: “I found that 26 states set expectations that were three or more grade levels behind the eighth-grade standards of New York State, the state that had set the highest expectations back in 2013, as an early adopter of Common Core.” 

The majority of the country has expectations for eighth graders three or more grade levels lower than New York.  The fact that New York’s standards are the highest is not what makes them inaccurate – it’s the fact that they are so much higher and that they in no way correlate with actual student success in high school.  That is what makes them inaccurate. 

Fixing the test benchmarks is not the only change that needs to occur, as there are many others, not the least of which is the test length.  However, it is impossible to salvage any benefit for children, parents, or educators if the results remain in their current invalid state. We are required to administer 3-8 Math and ELA tests annually, but we do not need to administer these tests.

It is our sincere hope that you help us work toward a more beneficial future for students in New York, and not cling to the flawed approaches of the past. 

 

An Open Letter to the Future New York State Education Commissioner

Janus Is As Meaningful As We Make It

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By Michael Lillis
President, Lakeland Federation of Teachers

Well, it happened.  


On June 27, the Supreme Court rendered its decision in
Janus vs AFSCME.  As expected, the ruling was 5-4 against the unions.  But what does this mean? Some believe this was a case about members having their free speech violated because of union political endorsements.  That was not the argument in this case, however, as money that goes to politicians comes from voluntary contributions, not dues. In NYSUT, these are called VOTE-COPE contributions.  

The argument Mark Janus and his attorneys made was that he should not be compelled to pay dues because the union was fighting for higher salaries and better benefits –  and he did not want either. This is obviously a ridiculous position that was contrived solely to bring a union-busting case to the Supreme Court. With a Supreme Court that leans conservative, his argument prevailed.  

So where does this leave us?  We are now in an era where public sector employees have the ability to opt-out of paying dues.  In other words, they have the ability to pick fruit from the poisoned tree.

Declining to pay dues is not staking out a neutral position – there is no neutral position. Declining to pay dues means that you accept the Mark Janus argument that the union should not be negotiating for better pay, pensions, and working conditions. Additionally, not paying dues will erode the union’s ability to fight for those same benefits. We therefore face a true existential crisis.

It’s no coincidence that the morning after the Janus decision, teachers across New York State received an email from a group funded by Betsy DeVos which informed them of their newfound ability to not pay dues.  Why so quickly, and why New York? The reason is New York has demonstrated the value of teachers standing together and collectively fighting to improve salaries, benefits and pensions. A recent Edweek study revealed that teachers earn less than a living wage in half the country. This is what the sponsors of Janus want for us, and this is why Betsy DeVos is flooding teacher emails with solicitations to decline to pay dues.

This will be successful unless we set aside our natural reluctance to be confrontational and engage anyone we know who is tempted by the fruit of the poisoned tree.  Family members, neighbors, and colleagues must understand that anyone who chooses not to pay their dues is declaring that they do not want their union fighting for higher salaries, better benefits, and secure pensions.  

A possible silver lining in the Janus decision is that it does not limit any activity that unions can do for their members.  Instead, the opinion is a cynical one – that people would rather pocket their dues and continue to get all the benefits they have grown accustomed to.

The decision to opt-out is an individual decision which threatens all of our livelihoods and yes, even the profession itself.

But we have the power to make this decision meaningless.  

I have not found despair in Janus, because it will only impact us if we let it.  

Janus Is As Meaningful As We Make It

Failed Tests and New York’s Looming Graduation Crisis

Bianca Tanis, Founding Member, New York State Allies for Public Education (NYSAPE);Michael Lillis, President, Lakeland Federation of Teachers; and Michael O’Donnell, Trustee, New Paltz Central School District Board of Education

(This article reflects the views of the authors and does not construe an official position of the New Paltz Central School District Board of Education.)

Introduction

The New York State Common Core tests are almost upon us and promises of sweeping changes to NYS tests and standards are rampant. The NYS Education Department is urging parents to opt back in and the media has reported that education officials are “bending over backwards” to address the concerns of parents and educators.

While the State has made some minor changes to this year’s tests (and promises more in the future), the fact remains that young children will still be subjected to reading passages years above grade level, test questions with more than one plausible answer, tests that are too long, waste valuable resources, and worst of all, tests that engender feelings of frustration, failure, angst, and confusion in our youngest learners.

Manufactured Crisis

Claims that untimed tests will alleviate stress on children are unfounded and misleading to parents. Giving a child more time to struggle with an inappropriate test rather than just fixing the flawed system is misguided and will create a logistical nightmare for the schools forced to accommodate this band-aid solution. Teachers will be pulled from classrooms to monitor student conversations during lunch breaks to ensure that 8-, 9-, and 10-year old students are not talking about the tests. At a time when our schools are being starved of funding, this is a gross and needless misallocation of resources.

In fact, very little has changed for children, and these damaging tests continue to threaten our children now and into the future.  How much damage?  A quarter million students are being labeled, annually, as failures.  The transition to “college-ready” graduation requirements in 2022 will result in the loss of more than 100,000 graduates per year.  Use this calculator to assess the impact on your school district: http://tiny.cc/DistrictCCR.

Unless we demand an immediate paradigm shift, many students will not only be labeled failures at 8-, 9-, and 10-years old, they will not graduate. We are not just talking about struggling students and students with special needs facing a graduation crisis.

New York has touted its testing program in grades 3-8 as a means of predicting whether or not a child is on track to be ready for career and college. However, NYS’s attempts to align test scores with a college readiness benchmark have been rife with problems and volatility. Subsequently, the use of these flawed benchmarks to determine who is proficient and who is not and  who will and will not obtain the necessary “college ready” test scores to earn a diploma jeopardizes the future of hundreds of thousands of students in NYS. Despite promises of sweeping change, the Governor’s Common Core Task Force completely ignored these deeply flawed college and career benchmarks, which must be met by all students to graduate starting in 2022.

Why are we here?

The most compelling justification for the State’s implementation of the Common Core Learning Standards and CC tests aligned to a state benchmark for college readiness has been data indicating the numbers of students that enter 2- and 4-year colleges and subsequently require remedial coursework.  From the Common Core Task Force Report, “According to The State University of New York, each year about 50 percent of first-year students at two-year colleges and 20 percent of those entering four-year universities require basic developmental courses before they can begin credit-bearing coursework”.

This is a  significant point and clearly more needs to be done to help these students both before and after entering college to help guarantee their success.  But using these data to assert claims of a public education crisis and to justify the current state testing regime has several major problems.

  • The majority of the two year schools are community colleges, which are non-competitive in their admissions.  Many of these students are already identified during K-12 instruction as needing remediation, and schools should be given resources to continue these efforts. Many educators have argued that a focus on testing and test-driven instruction makes it more difficult to meet the needs of struggling learners and may actually result in more students requiring remediation post high school.
  • There are no standard assessments or criteria used to determine which require remediation upon entering college.  Several studies have found placement exams to be poor indicators of college readiness.
  • There is a financial incentive for colleges in placing students in remediation and financial incentives for the corporations that create the placement exams.
  • The SUNY system only represents 42% of New York’s college population.
  • These figures ignore Independent Universities which make up one third of the collegiate population and have a very low remediation rate of 5.6%.

In addition to claiming that large numbers of students are leaving high school unprepared for college, New York State has made the claim that CC aligned grades 3-8 Common Core assessments are valid indicators of college and career readiness. Considering the sweeping judgements and policy decisions that are made based on these test scores, it is critical that this claim is scrutinized.

Benchmarking

In 2013 New York contracted with the College Board, producers of the SAT, to develop a metric that could be used to identify student readiness for college.  This number would set the thresholds for proficiency on all Math and ELA tests down through third grade.  The College Board, based on SED’s guidance, determined a student would need the following scores on their SAT in order to be considered “college ready.”

Critical Reading 560
Writing 530
Math 540
Total 1630

A score of a 1630 on the SAT is in the 66th percentile, which means that only 34% of test takers attain this score or higher.  The College Board uses a score of 1550 for its own benchmark, a score in the 57th percentile.

This process should have raised concerns, as it reduces something as complex as whether or not a student is ready for college down to a single test score.  Were it this easy, no school would have an admissions office – a computer could make admissions decisions.

Using a single benchmark aligned with the SAT for all students presents a significant problem. All but the most severely handicapped students take the NY state tests, but only students that have self-identified as going to competitive colleges take the SAT.  If you plan on going to a community college, no SAT is required. So New York expects all but its most severely handicapped students to be doing as well as the top 34% of college bound students nationally.  In fact, the graduation requirements for the class of 2022 (current 6th graders) will deny a diploma to any student not meeting this benchmark, or, in other words, doing as well as the top 34% of college bound students nationally.

We must also ask the question, is the SAT good enough at predicting success in college that New York should use it, exclusively, to benchmark its tests?   A 2014 study looked at 33 colleges that had SAT- and ACT-optional admissions policies.This study looked at 123,000 students and found that there is no meaningful difference in these two populations in terms of college graduation rates and grade point average. Those who did not submit SAT scores were more likely to be the first in their family to attend college, female, a Pell grant recipient, or a person of color. These individuals represent some of our most vulnerable student populations – they are the least likely to overcome the damage of being labeled unprepared for college based on a test score. Yet these students are just as likely to be successful in college when we consider other, more valid and predictive indicators of post high school success.

We also know that SAT scores are very closely tied to income.  A student who scores a 1630 on the SATs likely comes from a home with an income upwards of $160,000. We also know that SAT scores are a relatively weak indicator of student success in college – high school grades and success in higher level math courses are much better predictors of college performance. But despite the evidence, NYS has chosen to hang its hat on a weak indicator that is known to favor students who come from affluent, college-educated families. By correlating success with a measure that favors privileged students, are we reinforcing the existing class structure and promoting a biased instrument that does more harm than good?

Proficiency vs Home Value

Aligning the NYS college-readiness benchmark with a norm-referenced test like the SAT also ensures that many New York State students will be labeled failures. Norm-referenced tests compare test-takers to other test-takers and rank them by performance. On a norm-referenced test there must be test takers whose performance is considered below average, average, and above average – even when all test takers have demonstrated mastery on a given skill. These tests are intended to stratify students along a predetermined distribution and will always yield below-average scores for a substantial population of test-takers.

Criterion-referenced tests are tests that measure a student’s performance in terms of a specific set of skills or content. The Common Core State Standards are descriptions of specific skills, and, therefore, it would have made more sense for the state to have chosen a criterion based system of 3-8 Math and ELA assessments.  All students should have the ability to demonstrate proficiency independent of the performance of others in their cohort. The use of a norm-referenced test is highly questionable.

The Achievement Gap

While the SAT-based college-readiness benchmark created by New York does not correlate with the actual experience of New York’s students, it does appear to have a disproportionately negative impact on our non-white students.  Rather than helping to close the achievement gap, it is making the gap larger.

Proficiency vs Ethnicity and Economics

In 2012, 13% of economically disadvantaged students scored a 1 on the grades 3-8 assessments. In 2013, this number ballooned to 44% with the introduction of the CC aligned assessments and NYS college-readiness proficiency benchmarks . In the course of one year, we more than tripled the number of students living in poverty who were deemed “Below Standard.”

Vulnerable Populations below Standard

Between 2012 and 2015, the number of non-white students who scored a level 1 on the 3-8 assessments rose from 12% to 41%. The number of white students who scored a 1 grew from 5% to 23%.  From 2010-12 white students in the richest districts had partial proficiency (score: 2+) rates 22 percentage points higher than non-white students in the poorest districts.  With the advent of the new Common Core assessments that gap has more than doubled to 54 percentage points.  It is disturbing that rather than remaining constant over time, the rate of failure for students of color grew disproportionately larger than white students.

Income vs Below Standard

Rhetoric vs. Reality

We know that NYS CC tests aligned with this benchmark yield data that do not correlate with what we know about the post-secondary success of NYS students and even more importantly, disproportionately labels vulnerable students as failures. To date there has been no evidence to indicate that these assessments actually hold any predictive value yet they continue to be used to make graduation determinations and to judge the efficacy of our schools and teachers.

When we compare the actual readiness data – 51.6% based on non-remediated college enrollment – with the results of the state assessments, we find that NY is falsely labeling 240,000 students annually.  The parents of these students will receive a letter from State Ed explaining how their son or daughter is not on track to be ready for a college or a career, when if compared to historic trends, we know they are.  The prospect of incorrectly labeling a child (or 240,000 children) not college- and career-ready from third grade through twelfth, then denying them a diploma, has very serious implications.  To see the effect on your district, click here: http://tiny.cc/DistrictCCR.

False Picture of Readiness

These contradictory data are not simply academic; there is real damage being done to children as a result.  The Class of 2022 (current 6th grade) will need to pass Regents exams at these new, artificially elevated thresholds that align with the NYS definition of college readiness.  Graduation rates will plummet from 78% to approx. 26%, resulting in the loss of 110,000 high school graduates, 50,000 of which were fully prepared for college success.

Conclusion

It is telling that the Governor’s Common Core Task Force completely skirted the issue of the test benchmarks.  The Governor and Commissioner of Education have made much of their efforts to improve the State’s tests, but in reality, the 21 recommendations cannot meaningfully address the manufactured proficiency crisis New York students face.  In standardized testing, the benchmarking process is the key to all outcomes.  None of the Task Force’s 21 recommendations require State Ed to develop a new college and career readiness benchmark, so we can be sure the future tests will be producing the same flawed results.  Whether the tests are Questar or Pearson, created by teachers or non-teachers, shorter or longer, they will ultimately produce the same results for our students.

The outlook created by the CC aligned tests in grades 3-8 assessments is bleak. But it is important to remember that other measures for college readiness, including non-remediation, 2nd year persistence, non-remediation and persistence in combination, college graduation rates, the NAEP, and SAT and ACT benchmarks for college-readiness – all paint a better picture.

Until New York State revises its flawed college readiness benchmarks, there is no escape from pending graduation requirements that will deny thousands of students a diploma. 21% of proficient children, statewide, are being falsely told they are not at “grade level” and will not be ready for college. Will your child fall into the pool of children? Can you wait to find out? Refusing the NYS tests in grades 3-8 remains the most effective tool for demanding change and ensuring that ALL children have the opportunity to graduate and experience success.

If we acquiesce to these fundamentally flawed tests, our children will pay the price now and they will pay the price later.

Failed Tests and New York’s Looming Graduation Crisis

What’s a Teacher Unionist to do?

By Michael Lillis
President, Lakeland Federation of Teachers and ST Caucus Hudson Valley Coordinator

What’s a teacher unionist to do?

It’s clear that nothing will be the same in education after last year’s budget vote that completely redefined teacher evaluation in New York, followed by a tidal wave of test refusals.  As a result of this budget, we are expected to negotiate “in good faith” to develop local teacher evaluation systems that are compliant with the law.

I have been president of the Lakeland Federation of Teachers for 13 years and I understand the benefits of good faith negotiations. We have used them to keep education moving forward in Lakeland, despite the fact that we still receive less state aid than we did in 2009.  Putting leaders together in a room to have good faith discussions of what is best for the students, teachers and taxpayers is a very effective way to run a district.

Issues arise, however, when we are expected to negotiate in good faith to comply with a law that is a bad faith attempt at teacher evaluation.

The new teacher evaluation law, 3012-d, operates in bad faith.  For the last few years, I have served on the New York State Commissioner of Education’s Teacher Advisory Committee, which meets three times a year to discuss education issues.  We had our first meeting with Commissioner Elia on October 14, 2015. To the commissioner’s credit, it was a very genuine and rich discussion.

Here is the first issue for me.  During a discussion of teacher growth scores, I brought up that from my experience as a local president, the state’s growth scores lack validity because they do not correlate with teachers who are under-performing.  In my capacity as president, a year has not gone by where I do not counsel a tenured teacher out of the profession because the teacher has not responded to remediation efforts. However, not once since the state has started calculating growth scores has anybody asked, “What is the teacher’s growth score?” The reason for this is simple: nobody cares. Nobody believes growth scores are valid, and low growth scores simply do not correlate with ineffective teaching in the same way high growth scores do not correlate with effective teaching.

The second issue is the state’s growth scores lack reliability. They fluctuate wildly from year to year for individual teachers.  A teacher can receive a 3 out of 20 one year, and a 17 out of 20 the next.  These numbers appear to be the result of a random number generator. None of this is new and it will sound very familiar to any local president.

The shocking thing was the commissioner’s response to this issue. Commissioner Elia agreed and said based on her experience in New York, the growth scores appear to be “random” in nature.

Though I give Commissioner Elia tremendous credit for her honesty, where does this leave teachers?

I am still expected to negotiate in “good faith” an evaluation system that will increase from 20 to 50 percent the role of a number that is “random.”  If I do not, we lose our increase in state aid.  How can we have sunk so low in our treatment of children and educators? We are holding school aid hostage to adopting a teacher evaluation system that is equal parts teacher observation and a random number.  Who does this serve?

So I ask again, what’s a teacher unionist to do?

What’s a Teacher Unionist to do?

NYSUT Votes to Oppose and Replace College and Career Benchmarks

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At its Representative Assembly (RA) in May, NYSUT voted to oppose and replace New York’s College and Career Benchmarks. 

NYSUT must respect its resolutions and vehemently defend our students and schools against abusive standards and tests.

The resolution reads as follows:

Resolution to Oppose the Current College and Career Readiness Standards Created by NYSED and a Call for their Replacement

-Whereas, The recent release of items from the 3-8 grade ELA and Math assessments exposed how developmentally inappropriate these tests are; and

 -Whereas, These items were not there by mistake, but rather, reflect the inappropriate College and Career Benchmarks adopted by NYSED; and

 -Whereas, In 2013 NYSED, through a College Board study, set New York’s College and Career Readiness benchmark to a combined score of 1630 on the SAT, which is in the 66th percentile, and

-Whereas, This creates an expectation that all of New York’s students will do better than the top 34% of college bound students nationally, and

-Whereas, In 2013 the College Board conducted its own College and Career Readiness study and benchmarked it to a combined score of 1550 on the SAT, which is in the 57th percentile, and

-Whereas, New York’s unique and inappropriately high College and Career Benchmark serves to create a false narrative of failure about New York’s students and schools; and

 -Whereas, Thousands of students each year are inappropriately labeled not College and Career Ready, because of these standards, and

 -Whereas, Standards are necessary, but inappropriate standards can be abusive; and

 -Whereas, NYSUT members are charged with protecting their student’s health and well being, including their emotional health; therefore be it

Resolved, that NYSUT is opposed to the current College and Career Readiness Benchmarks being used by NYSED and calls for the commissioning of a panel including educators and developmental psychologists to set new developmentally appropriate standards.

NYSUT Votes to Oppose and Replace College and Career Benchmarks

The Tipping Point

The following is a speech delivered by LFT President Mike Lillis to the teachers, administrators, and board members of the Lakeland Central School District on August 31, 2015.

Good morning and welcome to the 2015-2016 school year. Will all of the new teachers and teacher assistants please stand and be recognized? Thank you. We welcome you and look forward to growing the character of our profession with you as we nurture and educate the children of the Lakeland Central School District.

In my opening remarks last year, I painted a picture of education reform on the run, with evidence such as Inbloom shuttering its doors, 65,000 students refusing the state tests, and polls showing increased opposition from parents as well as educators to the Common Core standards and high-stakes tests.

Well…a lot has happened since then.  To borrow from Charles Dickens, who would have a great deal to say about our treatment of children today, in many ways what we are seeing now is the tale of two education systems; it is the best of times and the worst of times.

Since I like to rip band aids off quickly, let’s talk about the worst of times first.  Despite the fact that high-stakes tests took a beating last year, their use in teacher evaluation being discredited by the American Statistical Association, American Education Research Association, National Academy of Education, as well as parents and educators, this April the Legislature and Governor doubled-down by rewriting the law on teacher evaluation and dramatically increasing the role that tests will take on.

Here is why I believe it is also the best of times.  Within a couple of weeks of our legislative rout, the parents of over 220,000 students said, “enough is enough” and refused to have their children take the state tests.  This level of direct parent participation is unlike anything we have seen before in New York and no, it is not because the “union told them to.”

This is a grassroots movement of parents that have tried every other means they have to protect the integrity of their child’s education.  

There are not 220,000 parents in New York that wake up daily and try to figure out which act of civil disobedience is best for them that day.  This is a movement that will grow until sanity is restored to our classrooms.  They have built a lever, and it will continue to grow until it is successful.

As you can imagine, not everyone sees this grassroots action by parents to protect their children and their teachers as a good thing.  Our new Commissioner of Education, MaryEllen Elia, recently said, “If any educator supported and encouraged opt outs, I think it’s unethical.” I am not sure how she defines support or encourage, but I would like to flesh out her use of the word unethical.

To quote Inigo Montoya, from The Princess Bride, “You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.”

There is nothing unethical about having an honest discussion with parents about the tests and their impact on our classrooms and subsequently on the quality of education their child will receive.  The decision to refuse a test is done on a case-by-case basis for parents, and in my experience, they seek out the highest quality information they can find. Different parents use different variables, but they always have the best interests of their child in mind. In fact, some parents will refuse the test for one child but not another based on what they think is best for each. So I do not believe that Commissioner Elia will find a case where a child refused a test because of coercion from a teacher. I agree that would be unethical as well as implausible.

Since the Commissioner would like to discuss ethics, I would like to contribute some of my own thoughts about State Education Department policies and hopefully begin a debate about whether or not they are ethical or even moral.

I do not believe that it is ethical to correlate proficiency on grade 3-8 math and ELA assessments to a score of 1630 on the SAT, a score that only 34% of college bound students achieve nationally.

I do not believe it is ethical to label students. More importantly, I do not believe it is ethical for the state of New York to label students “College and Career Ready” based on a single annual test.

I do not believe it is ethical to take students that remain on target to getting a 1500 on the SAT and labeling them not ready for college or a career, in third grade, fourth grade, fifth grade, and on and on through high school.  I believe this is state-sponsored abuse.

I do not believe it is ethical to use a formula to evaluate the state’s 3-8th grade teachers that guarantees 7% of them will be ineffective before a single student takes the tests.

I do not believe it is ethical to put a test ( a test I remind you that statistically is designed to have only the top 34% college bound students nationally pass it) and have students know that their performance will have a very real impact on the career of someone they love—their teacher.

I believe that these are starting points for a debate about ethical professional behavior and I would love to have all educators, parents, and legislators weigh in.

As a result of this debate, I believe, we will begin returning sanity to the state’s education policy and we can end the opt out wars by having a shared understanding of the value of public education.

So I welcome you to this year, even though it may be in an unconventional manner. I believe this year may be one of the most important in any of our careers.

We are at the tipping point.

The only question is, which way will we tip?  

The Tipping Point