Education (March 2011)

Taken by Surprise School Districts Adjust To Higher State Proficiency Standards


When New York State Education Department Regent Chancellor Merryl H. Tisch and New York State Education Commissioner David Steiner released the results from the state’s 2010 grade 3-8 assessments in math and English in July, education professionals across the state were taken by surprise by an unexpected change: the cut scores for the assessments had changed. This meant that students needed to score higher on the tests in order to be deemed proficient.

Seemingly overnight, the percentage of grade 3-8 students in New York State deemed proficient in math and English plummeted. According to a New York State Education Department press release, 77 percent of students met or exceeded proficiency standards in English in 2009, while 86 percent of students did so in math. The 2010 numbers under the new standards are 53 percent and 61 percent, respectively.

What Happened and Why?

The decision to make the change was made sometime over the summer and the new cut scores were put into effect retroactively on tests taken earlier in 2010. The plan is to make the standards progressively stricter over the next five years culminating in even higher standards in 2014.

In short, the new proficiency standards were changed in order to give educators a better idea of a student’s college-readiness. Chancellor Tisch says it is a great disservice when a child is deemed proficient when the child is not. She also notes that nowhere is this more true than among students who are most in need … English language learners, students with disabilities, African-American and Hispanic young people and students in economically disadvantaged districts – who turn out to be much further behind than anyone recognized. According to Tisch, the new cut scores are intended to clearly identify where more work needs to be done and to provide real accountability to bring about the focused attention needed to implement the necessary reforms to help all of our children catch up and succeed.

It’s important to note that the new results did not show a drastic drop in the student’s actual scores – in fact the average scores in both ELA and math were on par with the previous year. The only change was in what score was needed for a student to qualify for a more proficient level. The tests are still scored on a scale of 1 to 4, with a student needing to score a 3 or 4 in order to be proficient. But now, a higher score is needed for a student to hit each level. “They really changed what it meant for a student to be proficient in New York State,” says Florence O’Connor, assistant superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction for the Yorktown School District.

Unwelcome Surprise

The change came as a shock to many in the state, not because of what was done, but because of when and how it was done. “I think that in White Plains, the teachers are more than ready to step up to more rigorous standards. We just would have appreciated more time and ultimately more funding. There’re a lot of unfunded mandates that continue to strap public school systems,” says Jessica O’Donovan, assistant superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction in White Plains, whose

district is facing budget cuts in the millions of dollars. “The notion that it was done in the dark overnight and suddenly announced over the summer … I think that there was some, I don’t think anger is the right word; just that there was a feeling of that this was not a fair way to do it. That it felt like gotcha, because it did come mid-stream. That teachers did not have an opportunity to understand and recognize the changes that were going to be made ahead of time so that they could prepare their students differently.”

“Is it a wake-up call? It is another set of higher standards,” says O’Connor. “I honestly believe there are some educators, many educators, that say maybe we need to be looking at higher standards. But it came as a bit of a surprise, I have to tell you, because typically, that change would come prior to the testing. I think the surprise for the teachers was the way it was rolled out.”


An Immediate Impact

Since the changes were announced over the summer of 2010 and retroactively applied to the 2010 school year test results, a number of students who thought they had scored a 3 and tested proficient suddenly found themselves with a score of 2. Christine Burton, assistant superintendent for Curriculum, Instruction and Personnel for the Pelham School District, feels that this isn’t necessarily such a bad thing, as she says it allows the tests “to be more reflective of actual student achievement and a little less forgiving of things that districts need to do to work with students who are struggling.”

The effect upon each school district varied. In White Plains, 75.2 percent of grade 3 students received a 3 or 4 on their ELA tests. In 2010 that number dropped to 53.5 percent, resulting in an additional 100 students who did not pass. Had the standards remained the same, the number of students deemed proficient would have actually increased, from 75.2 percent to 78 percent. “It was significant,” says O’Donovan. “Which told us we had a lot of students who were right on the cusp in the past achieving level 3, and so all of those students became level 2s.”

In Yorktown, the results were similar. “If the standards had not changed, 9 percent of our students in ELA would not have met the proficiency standard that we expect,” says O’Connor. “Now that they’ve changed, 27 percent of our children in language arts do not meet that standard.” Likewise, proficiency in math in Yorktown fell from 98 percent to 82 percent.

While the Pelham School District also saw a drop in their results due to the new cut scores, the district was already working with borderline students who were testing proficient under the old standards, but then fell below the line when the scores were altered. “One of the things the administration did not do was create a lot of drama and fanfare around this,” says Burton, who said that the teachers in her district had plenty of warning on what was coming. “Our teachers are already familiar with that sense of being under the gun, that heightened accountability. And not just to us or to the community, but to each other as professionals.”

Different Districts, Different Responses

These scores don’t happen in a vacuum, and many districts are implementing or expanding programs to help the greater number of students who fall below the line. “We’re obligated … under New York State law to provide what’s called academic intervention services to students who do not make proficiency, level 1 or level 2,” says O’Connor. “It really requires us to build in capacity in classroom instruction for students who are struggling and to give them intervention services. And it is really the largest focus on preventative education that I’ve seen in my years in education. The RTI (Response to Intervention) process really requires us to embed great support in our instruction. That’s one of the pillars of the work that we do to get students ready for learning and certainly for assessments, which is a small part of their learning.” Districts are mandated to be running some sort of RTI model by July of 2012.

In White Plains, the district is not waiting. “We have rolled out something called Intervention Block, which is very much aligned with the Response to Intervention framework which is mandated,” explains O’Donovan. “[Intervention Block] is a time in the day that’s devoted to each grade level. It’s a 30 to 40 minute block outside of core curriculum, so during this time no new core curriculum is delivered.”

The instruction done during this new block of time is individualized according to student needs and can be anything from intervention to enrichment. “This is a time in the day where we really want to make sure that we are targeting students exactly where they are,” says O’Donovan. To make time for this new block of instruction, the district has tightened their schedule – reducing their ELA block by 15 minutes each day and shaving off 5 minutes here and there within the schedule in order to fit it all in. “It’s not costing us any additional money, and it’s using our existing resources in a different way to reach kids more deeply,” says O’Donovan.

On the opposite side of the response spectrum is Pelham. “With intense community scrutiny and participation, we’ve implemented standards-based report cards over the past couple of years that have really challenged our notions of student achievements,” says Burton. “In a number of instances we discovered that our own teachers, through our standards-based report cards, were giving students levels of performance that were less than what they were achieving … under the old state testing model.”

Since students who fell below the line under the new cut scores were already identified as struggling and were already enrolled in the district’s AIS (Academic Intervention Support) program, no new policies or programs were implemented in Pelham as a result of the new standards.

Teaching to the Test?

With the heightened focus on assessment test scores, one might fear the temptation to teach to the test to the detriment of actual student learning. Not so, says O’Connor. “Our belief has been, if our instruction is strong, and we’re using student data … and we know as quickly as possible what students are having difficulty through student data … and we have resources and instruction to support that immediately … then we are really doing the right thing and we should get good results on the test. If there’s strong instruction in the classroom and in the support, then you’re not teaching to the test, you’re doing what’s right.”

Burton agrees that the new cut scores are a positive change, and will not result in a dilution of instruction. “We’re not unhappy about these changes. On our side of things, regardless of what the State was going to do, we were determined to up the quality of our program by approaching it as we have through the standards-based system.” She says, noting that in many ways, it is a recalibration that once again puts New York State in the forefront of educational standards. “New York State has historically been one of the strongest states in establishing standards as targets for performance.”

O’Donovan says her district welcomes the change. “The fact that it was changed mid-stream seemed unfair, but we want to be held accountable to very rigorous benchmarks,” she says. “We want to make sure that if we’re saying a student is meeting state standards, that that, in fact, means that they are truly on track to graduate and be prepared for rigorous college or career work. And I don’t think many of us felt that was the case in the past.”

David Neilsen is a stay-at-home dad and a freelance writer who frequently contributes to Westchester Family.