New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (EPA/JASON SZENES)

Last week, a task force created by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) to review Common Core curriculum and aligned standardized testing issued a report with a series of recommendations on how to change the standards and assessment. The report, which detailed mistakes in the Core’s implementation in New York, was the subject of stories in the press (including an Answer Sheet post here) that discussed the changes the task force is recommending, and that Cuomo is expected to accept.

Here’s a new piece on the report, which says that there is less there than meets the eye, and that New Yorkers shouldn’t expect big changes. It was written by Carol Burris, who retired as principal of South Side High School in New York last June and is now the executive director of the nonprofit Network for Public Education Fund. She was named New York’s 2013 High School Principal of the Year by the School Administrators Association of New York and the National Association of Secondary School Principals. In 2010, she was selected as the 2010 New York State Outstanding Educator by the School Administrators Association of New York State.

 

By Carol Burris

Poor Andrew Cuomo. He really doesn’t get it. He can’t understand that yet another commission report, with pictures of grinning kids, will not make New York mothers and teachers like him again.

The press release for the New York Common Core Task Force Final Report,  released last week, suggests that New York will create its own standards and abandon the Common Core, assuming Cuomo accepts its recommendations. That is not, however, an accurate characterization of what is in the report. It does a credible job of describing New York’s botched implementation of reform, but if New Yorkers were looking for audacity and clear direction, they will not find it in the task force report.

The report is timid. There is no courage in recounting well-documented mistakes. Parents understand the problems that resulted from goofy modules, mixed up math and horrible tests. There would be courage, however, in charting a bold course forward that provides immediate relief for the students and teachers of New York. Such bravery, sadly, is noticeably absent.

Let’s begin with its recommendations regarding the Common Core. Although the press release characterizes the report as demanding an “overhaul” of the standards, the body of the report calls for minimal change. There are only two specific recommendations: (1) modify the standards K-2 and (2) provide flexibility for students with disabilities and English Language Learners.

Although both recommendations are welcome, there are none that address the consistent complaints about confusing and misaligned math standards. And while there is a mention of the effects of the push for close reading and informational text at the expense of literature and poetry, the report pledges allegiance to the Common Core shifts, which caused the narrowing of English Language Arts instruction in the first place.

The New York State Allies for Public Education (NYSAPE) recently conducted a survey of the Common Core standards, after receiving complaints that the State Education Department’s survey was overly detailed and excessively time-consuming to complete. In one week, NYSAPE received nearly 12,000 responses. Over 76 percent of the respondents, who were mostly parents or teachers, found Common Core math to be “too difficult and/or confusing.” Over 83 percent of respondents disagreed with “the shift” to close reading strategies that intensely focus on the text, apart from social and historical context. A whopping 86 percent responded that New York should abandon the Common Core and return to the former New York State standards. The slow plod toward standards review recommended in the report is hardly the “overhaul” that parents will expect.

And then there are the infamous tests. The report recommends that they be shorter and more transparent, while providing opportunity for feedback from students and teachers. That would be welcome change. What is noticeably absent however, is a demand to re-visit New York’s irresponsible cut scores that benchmark proficiency to a score of 1630 on the SAT.   By setting the bar at an unrealistic level, we have seen three years of stagnant student performance and a widening of the proficiency gap.

Truth be told, no matter what recommendations the report made, at least half of the horse is already out of the testing barn. The new direction in assessment was set with the July approval of a $44 million contract with Questar that locks the state in for five years. If parents are looking for relief from test-driven instruction, they will not find it with Questar. You can read about the company’s philosophy of continuous assessment-driven instruction here. Below is an excerpt:

 …after every five minutes of individualized tablet-based instruction, students would be presented with a brief series of questions that adapt to their skill level, much as computer-adaptive tests operate today. After that assessment, the next set of instructional material would be customized according to these results. If a student needs to relearn some material, the software automatically adjusts and creates a custom learning plan on the fly. The student would then be reassessed and the cycle would continue…

 The practice of adaptive, computer-based learning, known as Competency Based Education (CBE), is a reincarnation of two other failed reforms from the last century — Outcomes Based Instruction and Mastery Learning. As the tests roll out, Questar will be marketing their CBE modules for test prep, and schools desperate to increase scores will buy them.

Finally, there is the elephant in the room–the evaluation of teachers by test scores. When it comes to the damage done by APPR, the report is strangely silent. It is as though the committee never heard a complaint on how evaluating teachers by test scores increased both anxiety and test prep. The only place where it is addressed is in Recommendation 21 that states that until a new set of standards are phased in, the results of Common Core 3-8 assessments should be advisory only.  Cuomo immediately seized on the ambiguity of that statement and issued the following:

 The Education Transformation Act of 2015 will remain in place, and no new legislation is required to implement the recommendations of the report, including recommendations regarding the transition period for consequences for students and teachers. During the transition, the 18 percent of teachers whose performance is measured, in part, by Common Core tests will use different local measures approved by the state, similar to the measures already being used by the majority of teachers.

 The Education Transformation Act was the bill Cuomo pushed through the legislature to raise the percentage of test scores in teacher evaluations to 50 percent. Like a teenage boy who doesn’t get that the relationship is over, Cuomo cannot let go of his APPR, even though more researchers agree that evaluating teachers by test student scores makes no sense.

What is more interesting is that Cuomo’s claim (there is no need for “new legislation”) is false.   Here is an excerpt from the Act. The first subcomponent comprises 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation unless an additional test is added to the mix. From page 129:

(1)        FOR THE FIRST SUBCOMPONENT, (A) FOR A TEACHER WHOSE COURSE ENDS IN A STATE-CREATED OR ADMINISTERED TEST FOR WHICH THERE IS A STATE-PROVIDED GROWTH MODEL, SUCH TEACHER SHALL HAVE A STATE-PROVIDED GROWTH SCORE BASED ON SUCH MODEL; AND (B) FOR A TEACHER WHOSE COURSE DOES NOT END A STATE-CREATED OR ADMINISTERED TEST SUCH TEACHER SHALL HAVE A STUDENT LEARNING OBJECTIVE (SLO) CONSISTENT WITH A GOAL-SETTING PROCESS DETERMINED OR DEVELOPED BY THE COMMISSIONER, THAT RESULTS IN A STUDENT GROWTH SCORE; PROVIDED THAT, FOR ANY TEACHER WHOSE COURSE ENDS IN A STATE-CREATED OR ADMINISTERED ASSESSMENT FOR WHICH THERE IS NO STATE-PROVIDED GROWTH MODEL, SUCH ASSESSMENT MUST BE USED AS THE UNDERLYING ASSESSMENT FOR SUCH SLO;

Even if the State Education Department puts growth scores on hold, under the law, the district would be mandated to create a SLO using the Common Core tests.  Cuomo’s insistence on micromanaging teacher evaluations, which Operations Director Jim Malatras bragged about in an interview last year, clearly creates a problem. If Common Core tests are to be excluded from teacher evaluations, the law has to change.

And so for New York parents and teachers, the legislature offers the only really hope for relief. Will it have the courage of the Oklahoma legislature that rejected the Common Core, and returned the state to its former standards until it created standards of it own? These new standards, by the way, are shaping up to be quite different from the Common Core. Or will it have the courage of the California lawmakers who suspended testing for a year and then continued to refuse to link testing to accountability as it phased in the Common Core? Finally, will New York join the seven states that have refused to evaluate their teachers by test scores? Under the new Every Student Succeeds Act, a new and very different evaluation system is now possible.

As the next election approaches, it will be fascinating to see how lawmakers react as parents realize that the hype around the report does not match the reality of what is happening in their schools. April will come and the Pearson tests will be back again. If Cuomo’s hope was to reduce the attention and the angst, mission not accomplished.