capital report

Small rally against the Common Core airs big issues in Albany


ALBANY — In New York, supporters of the Common Core are quick to point out that criticism of the new learning standards has focused on implementation.

But the people who showed up at the State Education Department’s steps in Albany this afternoon made it clear their opposition is to the standards themselves. They echoed critiques that have been leveled across the country, that the standards are a federal overreach and developmentally inappropriate for children.

Hoisting signs that likened the Common Core to “child abuse” and Communism and chanting “No more Common Core,” about 40 parents and students from around the state attended the rally.

The rally took place on a day that critics of the Common Core, led by an upstate mother and Tea Party activist, had designated on Facebook as “National Don’t Send Your Child To School Day.

The rising protests across the country have provoked a testy response from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who said over the weekend that the resistance to the new standards was driven by “white suburban moms” who are being told for the first time that their children are not high-achievers.

In Albany, one parent, Deirdre Entrup of Hudson, said that Duncan’s comments would upset more than just white suburban moms. She said that their husbands would be upset because they were left out of the generalization, as well as other parents who have reservations about the Common Core and do not fit the description. “Keep doing it, Arne,” Entrup said. “Keep talking.”

The protest gave rise to widespread concerns and more extreme views — sometimes from the same person.

“They’re trying to have everybody the same,” said Germantown’s Catherine Lnu, who helped organize the protest on Facebook. “They’re Communists. We’re not Communists.”

Lnu said she became involved less than two months ago after hearing about rising unrest across the state from parents. She said that once she looked into the standards, she became alarmed that the standards were the same for every student in every state that has adopted them.

“It needs to be fixed at the local level,” Lnu said about education. “I don’t need it to be fixed by the federal government.”

New York is one of 45 states that agreed to adopt the Common Core standards as part of a nationwide push to establish a set of skills that students must know to be ready for college and compete professionally in an international economy. The standards require students to think critically, write more, and apply their learning to real-world situations in math.

New York was one of the first states to align its tests to the new standards, prompting pushback from teachers and teachers unions who said educators had not been fully prepared to teach to the new standards in their classrooms. The unions and other critics say they support the standards but want New York State to slow its pace of implementation.

Siena poll released today found that about half of New Yorkers are not confident that the Common Core will lead schools to get all students ready for college and careers. Half of New Yorkers also said the state requires too much testing.

Bob Reilly, a parent from Pawling in Dutchess County, said he is encouraging his sixth- and eighth-grade daughters to refuse the tests at the end of the year — a proposition that eighth-grader Meghan said she would eagerly accept.

“It was stupid,” she said of last year’s test. “I didn’t find it too hard, but it was more like they were teaching us to take the test rather than for our future.”

Reilly said he was particularly alarmed that the state’s online resource for parents, EngageNY, highlighted a lesson about a book that refers to animals’ excretory systems as being Common Core-aligned.

Lnu said she did not suggest holding the protest on Monday not necessarily because state education officials were inside discussing education policies during their monthly meeting. Rather, Nov. 18 is Revolution Day in Mexico, which marks a 1910 public uprising that eventually overturned the nation’s establishment government.

“Today is Revolution Day,” Lnu said. “What better day for a revolution?”

research report

Three years in, some signs of (slight) academic growth at struggling ‘Renewal’ schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio at Brooklyn Generation School — part of the Renewal program

When Mayor Bill de Blasio launched an aggressive and expensive campaign to turn around the city’s lowest performing schools, he made a big promise: Schools would see “fast and intense” improvements within three years.

Almost exactly three years later, and after flooding 78 schools with more than $386 million in new social services and academic support, there are signs that the Renewal program has generated gains in student learning. The evidence is based on two newly updated analyses of test score data — one from Marcus Winters, a fellow at the conservative-learning Manhattan Institute, and the other from Aaron Pallas, a professor at Teachers College.

But the researchers caution that those improvements are modest — when they exist at all — and don’t yet match the mayor’s lofty promises.

The results may have implications far beyond New York City, as a national and political test case of whether injecting struggling schools with resources is more effective than closing them.

The two researchers previously reviewed the first two years of test score data in elementary and middle schools in the Renewal program: Winters found a positive effect on test scores, while Pallas generally found little to no effect.

Now, as the program reaches its third birthday, the pair of researchers have updated their findings with new test score data from last school year, and largely reaffirmed their earlier conclusions.

“We’re not seeing large increases” in student achievement, Pallas said. “And the reality is it’s hard to get large increases in struggling schools.”

Some advocates have argued that it is too early to expect big shifts in test scores, and that infusing schools with extra social services like mental health counseling and vision screenings are valuable in themselves. But de Blasio’s promise of quick academic turnaround has invited questions about Renewal’s effectiveness and whether resources can be more effective in improving low-performing schools than shuttering them.

To assess the program’s academic effect, Pallas compared changes in Renewal school test scores to other schools that had similar test results and student demographics when the program started, but did not receive extra support.

The biggest gains Pallas found were concentrated at the elementary level.

Over the past three school years, 20 elementary schools in the Renewal program have made larger gains on average in math and reading than 23 similar schools that didn’t get extra resources. The proportion of elementary school students considered proficient in reading at Renewal schools increased from 7 percent in 2014 to 18 percent last year — an 11-point jump. Meanwhile, the comparison schools also saw gains, but only by seven percentage points, giving Renewal schools a four percentage point advantage.

At the middle school level, the results are less encouraging. The 45 Renewal middle schools did not collectively outperform a group of 50 similar schools outside the program in reading or math.

In math, for instance, Renewal school students improved from 5 percent proficient to 7 percent. However, the comparison schools outside the program improved by roughly the same margin — increasing proficiency from 6 to 9 percent (and still far below city average). In reading, Renewal middle schools showed slightly less growth than the comparison group.

City officials have argued that Pallas’ findings are misleading partly because Renewal schools and the comparison schools are not actually comparable. Renewal schools, they say, were designated based on a range of factors like school climate or teacher effectiveness, not just student demographics and test scores.

“The schools included in the study are neither similar nor comparable in quality and a comparison of the two dissimilar groups is unreliable at best,” Michael Aciman, an education department spokesman, said in a statement. Aciman added that Renewal schools have made larger gains in reading and math than similar schools across the state, and have made progress in reducing chronic absenteeism and improving instruction.

Pallas notes that there are some limitations to his approach, and acknowledges that he could not account for some differences between the two groups, such as the quality of a school’s principal. He also does not use student-level data, for instance, which would allow a more fine-grained analysis of whether the Renewal program is boosting student achievement. But Pallas, and other researchers who have previously reviewed his data, have said his model is rigorous.

The Manhattan Institute’s Winters found more positive trends than Pallas, consistent with his earlier findings. Using an approach that evaluates whether Renewal schools are outperforming historical trends compared with schools outside the program, Winters found that the Renewal program appeared to have a statistically significant effect on both reading and math scores — roughly equivalent to the difference in student achievement between charter schools and traditional district schools in New York City.

Asked about how to interpret the fact that his results tended to be more positive, Winters said either interpretation is plausible.

“It’s hard to tell which of these is exactly right,” he said. But “neither of us are finding results that are consistent with what we would expect if the program is having a large positive effect.”


Five things to know about the latest brouhaha over Tennessee’s TNReady test

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede

Last week’s revelation that nearly 10,000 Tennessee high school tests were scored incorrectly has unleashed a new round of criticism of the standardized test known as TNReady.

Testing company Questar says it muffed some tests this spring after failing to update its scanning software. A year earlier, a series of mistakes got its predecessor, Measurement Inc., fired when Tennessee had to cancel most of TNReady in its first year after a failed transition to online testing.

While the two companies’ glitches are hardly comparable in scope, Questar’s flub has uncorked a tempest of frustration and anger over the standardized assessment and how it’s used to hold teachers accountable.

Here are five things to know about the latest TNReady flap:

1. A relatively small number of students, teachers, and schools are affected.

State officials report that the scoring problem was traced to only high school tests, not for its grade-schoolers. Of the 600,000 high school end-of-course tests, about 9,400 were scored incorrectly. Most of the fixes were so small that fewer than 1,700 tests — or less than one-tenth of 1 percent — saw any change in their overall performance level. A state spokeswoman says the corrected scores have been shared with the 33 impacted districts.

2. But the TNReady brand has taken another huge hit.

Tennessee has sought to rebuild public trust in TNReady under Questar and celebrated a relatively uneventful testing season last spring. But the parade of problems that surfaced during TNReady’s rollout, combined with this year’s drops in student performance under the new test, have made subsequent bumps feel more like sinkholes to educators who already are frustrated with the state’s emphasis on testing. Questar’s scanning problems were also tied to delays in delivering preliminary scores to school systems this spring — another bump that exasperated educators and parents at the end of the school year and led many districts to exclude the data from student report cards.

3. State lawmakers will revisit TNReady — and soon.

House Speaker Beth Harwell asked Monday for a hearing into the latest testing problems, and discussion could happen as early as next week when a legislative study committee is scheduled to meet in Nashville. Meanwhile, one Republican gubernatorial candidate says the state should eliminate student growth scores from teacher evaluations, and a teachers union in Memphis called on Tennessee to invalidate this year’s TNReady results.

4. Still, those talks are unlikely to derail TNReady.

Tennessee is heavily invested in its new assessment as part of its five-year strategic plan for raising student achievement. Changing course now would be a surprise. Last school year was the first time that all students in grades 3-11 took TNReady, a standardized test aligned to the Common Core standards, even though those expectations for what students should learn in math and English language arts have been in Tennessee classrooms since 2012. State officials view TNReady results as key to helping Tennessee reach its goal of ranking in the top half of states on the Nation’s Report Card by 2019.

5. Tennessee isn’t alone in traveling a bumpy testing road.

Questar was criticized this summer for its design of two tests in Missouri. Meanwhile, testing giant Pearson has logged errors and missteps in New York, Virginia, and Mississippi. And in Tennessee and Ohio this spring, the ACT testing company administered the wrong college entrance exam to almost 3,000 juniors from 31 schools. Officials with the Tennessee Department of Education emphasized this week that they expect 100 percent accuracy on scoring TNReady. “We hold our vendor and ourselves to the highest standard of delivery because that is what students, teachers, and families in Tennessee deserve,” said spokeswoman Sara Gast.