State tries to shift focus away from school tests

Emphasis is on aiding underachieving schools

ALBANY — The new system for identifying the state’s worst-performing schools, which still requires federal approval, looks to expand beyond just test scores and shift the focus to assisting struggling schools. 

State officials plan to use student absenteeism, rates of student growth, access to higher level coursework and other measures when determining what schools fall in the bottom 5 percent in performance.  

“We don’t want it to be just test scores,” state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said Monday after the Board of Regents approved the state’s proposed plan, fulfilling requirements under a new federal education law passed and signed into law in 2015.  

While the federal Department of Education can ask for changes to the state plan, what the Regents approved Monday attempts to lay out the state’s broad vision for how to improve all schools in the coming years. 

In the Capital Region, schools in Schenectady, Amsterdam, Albany, Troy and Gloversville districts have all appeared on state struggling schools lists in recent years. 

The plan sets the overarching long-term goal of moving all students in the state to proficiency on state tests. To do that, state officials set intermediary goals that call for faster progress from subgroups, such as students of color and students with disabilities, that start further from proficiency.

Even though it includes other measures, and plans to add more in years to come, the accountability system still starts with test scores, although it now accounts for science and social studies scores and gives partial and extra credit for students approaching or exceeding proficiency.

Schools earn a score based on test performance and student growth from previous year’s testing. They also receive scores based on absenteeism and access to advanced courses, though those measures aren’t weighted as highly as academic performance.

High schools can be automatically classified if they fail to reach a graduation rate of at least 67 percent, but five-year and six-year graduation rates, which tend to be higher than traditional four-year rates’ count toward meeting that target under the state proposal. Students statewide who entered ninth grade in 2010, for example, registered a four-year graduation rate of just over 76 percent and a six-year rate of 84 percent.  

Schenectady High School’s four-year rate dipped to around 67 percent this August, after reaching a 10-year high at 69 percent in 2016..

From those measures, the state will classify around 5 percent of schools as “Comprehensive Support and Improvement” schools, the most serious classification category. But the plan also emphasizes the corrective work schools and districts will undertake if they are identified as needing major improvement, including ways in which the state will provide support. 

Once identified, schools and districts, with the help of state officials, will analyze where a school’s greatest needs are and develop improvement plans. If the school improves for two consecutive years, it can be declassified. If it fails to improve, state officials will provide even greater assistance. If that doesn’t work, the school will fall into the state’s receivership program, which in the long run gives the state the authority to appoint an outside receiver to implement large changes. 

“It used to be a scarlet letter on a school and that was it, you didn’t do anything to help or you said you have three years to fix it but didn’t do anything,” Elia said of earlier attempts to identify low-performing schools. “It needs to be put in the real world of what it is we can do to help you.”

The proposal tiptoes around the contentious issue of participation on state tests. State officials are required by federal law to include a plan for boosting districts with test participation rates below 95 percent — the vast majority of districts in a state, where nearly a fifth of students refuse the tests. Districts with less than 95 percent of students participating on tests — nearly all in the Capital Region — will be required to analyze why their participation falls short of the target and develop a plan for meeting the target. Districts that fall in the bottom 10 percent in the state on test participation will be required to submit their improvement plan to state officials. If participation rates still don’t improve, state officials may require the district “undertake activities” to improve test participation.

The plan also asks for three federal waivers: exempt seventh- and eighth-graders who take high school level math courses from having to also take state math assessments; give English language learners a grace year before counting their state test scores in determining school performance; and to allow students with significant cognitive disabilities to take tests up to two grade levels below their current grade.

State officials said they expected federal approval sometime in January or February.

Elia on Monday cautioned that nothing takes effect until federal approval is in hand. 

“We don’t have an approved plan until it is approved in Washington,” she said.

Categories: News, Schenectady County

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