While this year’s student proficiency scores showed overall improvement statewide, local superintendents say that recent changes in testing design and implementation mean those results don’t reflect student performance accurately.
This year, for the first time since April 2013, when the state mandated the controversial Common Core standardized testing, the annual English Language Arts (ELA) and math assessments were untimed and had fewer questions.
In December, the state Board of Regents, which drafts education guidelines for New York public schools, also responded to high-stakes testing concerns by imposing a four-year moratorium on using student scores to evaluate teachers and principals.
Despite those changes, the number of students refusing to sit for the exams — commonly referred to as “opting out” — rose this year, which is another reason superintendents say they aren’t confident the latest data accurately portrays student proficiency.
Across the North Fork, 51 percent of 4,543 third- through eighth-graders refused to take ELA exams and 49 percent of 4,657 declined to sit for the math exams. (Some districts don’t count a small percentage of eighth-graders as refusing the tests because they chose to take math Regents exams instead.)
Critics of the state’s testing method argue that because only 5 percent of New York’s public schools met the mandated 95 percent student participation rate this year, it’s misleading to use the scores to illustrate student performance.
“We had very high opt-out rates, so we cannot tell anything from our [test] scores,” Shoreham-Wading River Superintendent Steven Cohen said in an email, adding that he believes the state’s scoring method has been inconsistent.
“Most important, these scores do not help us identify specific ways to improve instruction,” he said, “which means these tests do not warrant the time, money and energy needed to administer them in the first place.”
Scoring for the mandated exams is determined by state standard for proficiency and based on the number of students rated at levels 3 and 4.
ELA proficiency scores at Shoreham-Wading River dipped a percentage point this year, to 49 percent of 263 students, and held steady for math, at 52 percent of 215 students, according to a report released by the New York State Department of Education.
As for opt-out numbers, 74 percent of Shoreham-Wading River students declined to sit for this year’s assessments, with 803 of 1,090 students opting out of the ELA test and 675 of 910 refusing to take the math exam. Those numbers reflect increases of 4 percent and 1 percent, respectively, over last year.
Dr. Cohen said the growing opt-out movement is a strong indictor that the current standardized testing system needs to be overhauled and said he believes Regents exams and Advanced Placement tests are better methods of measuring student achievement.
“These two more reliable tests tell us that our students continue to learn at a high level,” he said. “Our high school graduation rate — nearly 100 percent — tells us that overall our district continues to support student success from kindergarten through high school.”
In Riverhead, the state report shows that 21 percent of 1,533 students were deemed proficient in ELA — up one percentage point. Proficiency in math remained steady, at 24 percent of 1,414 students.
About 39 percent of Riverhead students opted out of this year’s assessments: 805 of 2,050 students refused the ELA exam and 916 of 2,341 declined the math test. Compared to last year, these refusals constitute opt-out increases of 12 percent for ELA and 4 percent for math.
Given the growing test refusal rate, along with the state’s failure to address testing needs for English Language Learner (ELL) students and students with disabilities, Riverhead Superintendent Nancy Carney described evaluating the latest state assessment results as “frustrating.”
“The state is in the process of revising standards and assessments, but the current system does not allow for any flexibility [for ELL and students with disabilities],” she said in an email. “We are very disappointed, of course, in our test scores and we are analyzing the data to understand areas that need strengthening.”
This year, state officials said, about 38 percent of New York’s public school students rated proficient in ELA and 39 percent in math. Those scores reflect proficiency increases over last year of 6.6 percentage points in ELA and 1 percent in math, the report shows.
“We made important changes to the assessments this year and we’re going to continue to look at ways to make them even better moving forward,” Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa said in a press release. “While it’s not possible to make direct comparisons of this year’s results to past years, I’m cautiously optimistic the changes we’re making will drive improvements in teaching and learning.”
Although Ms. Carney said she appreciates the state’s efforts to monitor student achievement, she believes its “singular method of doing so leaves us with as murky a picture.”
“I have been in classrooms across our district and I see the wonderful teaching by our faculty and the incredible learning and progress that our students are making every day,” she said. “We will continue to advocate for more flexibility and for using multiple assessments to determine student achievement and growth.”