New York State School Leadership Fiasco: The Illusion of Rigor

This past week the New York State Education Department released the scores of proficiency tests in math and English. The "proficiency" level of students in New York has plummeted through the floor.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

This past week the New York State Education Department released the scores of proficiency tests in math and English given to all 3rd through 8th graders in New York public schools last spring. For months prior to the release of the scores, the State Education Commissioner, David Steiner dithered about whether to adjust the "cut scores" -- or the baseline for determining proficiency on these tests. Apparently research has shown that the New York State tests were not adequately measuring proficiency. But instead of methodically, collaboratively, and smartly revising and implementing new, more rigorous assessments, the Commissioner and the New York State Board of Regents decided to arbitrarily, retro-actively raise the proficiency bar for the tests already taken. As a result -- the "proficiency" level of students in New York has plummeted through the floor -- all across the state -- from poor urban school districts to the wealthiest lily white school districts. According to the New York Times, "The falloff in passing rates occurred statewide. This year, 61 percent of state students were deemed passing, or at grade level, in math, compared with 86 percent last year. Students also performed dismally on the English tests, with 53 percent passing, down from 77 percent."

This act by the commissioner and the Regents comes well after school districts created and adopted their budgets for the succeeding school year -- and they clearly have no way to fund the deluge of required remediation. For those students not attaining proficiency, the state mandates "academic intervention services". There's no way for school districts to now fund for the massive influx of required additional services for the upcoming school year. Also, as a result of the arbitrary cut score adjustment, many more schools will fail to show "Adequate Yearly Progress" required under the federal No Child Left Behind law. But the state education department in its infinite wisdom is seeking an exception this year due to the drop in proficiency. The department is also granting a one-time exemption for school districts from the additional remediation requirement.

So why do this at all?

Education Commissioner Steiner and Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said research shows the existing tests had failed to accurately predict whether or not students were truly proficient or whether they would be ready for high school or college coursework. "What has changed is that we are setting the bar higher," said Tisch. "The same score that got you over bar last year is not enough to get you over the bar this year."

How stupid is that?

There are an infinite battery of testing regimens out there. In fact, according to Newsday, some Long Island districts have been pining to use readily available assessments that are deemed far superior to the New York State tests to determine proficiency levels. These test results are also available immediately. They want permission to use a testing regimen developed by the Northwest Evaluation Association: "We believe the NWEA gives us more information and better information and... teachers don't have to sit around waiting for results," said William Johnson, superintendent in Rockville Centre, a district involved in the push for alternative testing.

Look, it's fine to raise the bar -- raise standards -- raise expectations - and then design tests that measure what you want to measure. This act by the commissioner and the Regents defies common sense. So now you have the spectacle of everyone bemoaning the quality of our public schools and the post-budgeting scramble to put together remediation programs for the additional non-proficient students, while the state education department says, "oops we goofed -- and please give us a bye on Adequate Yearly Progress."

So why was this done?

The Race to the Top has turned our educational leaders into groveling lap dogs pathetically begging for a slab of beef (or a piece of $700 million).

Chancellor Tisch and State Education Commissioner David Steiner are front and center on this pull the rug out, knee-jerk, illusory suck up to Education Secretary Arne Duncan and the Race to the Top dollars. Tisch has been a Regent since 1996 -- and she just now deigns that the statewide testing regimen is deficient? Here's what she had to say:

"We haven't been testing the right things in the right ways. 'Proficiency' on our exams has to mean something real; no good purpose is served when we say that a child is proficient when that child is not. So we're improving our assessments by raising cut scores, making the exams less predictable, testing more areas and making the tests longer. But more rigorous exams are only one piece of the Regents broader reform vision -- a vision that includes a more challenging curriculum, better training for teachers and principals and a world-class data system."

You have got to be kidding! You're not improving your assessment by raising cut scores!

At the end of the day this becomes yet another massive unfunded mandate that the state has foisted up on school districts and the property tax payer.

Chancellor Tisch has been a Regent since 1996 -- and has had an oversight role on the New York State educational bureaucracy for the better part of 15 years. Merryl Tisch should resign as Chancellor, and Commissioner David Steiner should be fired. This post-hoc cut score change is a pernicious act of assault on schools, students, parents and teachers in New York State. The Regents and the commissioner have shown that they are clueless about education and the ways and means to reform teaching and instruction.

Popular in the Community