Friday, September 1, 2023

As New York Public Schools Struggle With Learning Losses From Covid Shutdowns, State Is Withholding Students’ Test Scores

At a time when New York public school students are struggling with the effects of  learning losses during Covid shutdowns, the state education department is facing criticism for delaying the release of student test scores, a crucial guide for educational performance.

As schools prepare for the fourth full academic year since the pandemic, plummeting academic performances represent the “new normal,” as the co-chairwoman of New York’s Technical Advisory Committee, Marianne Perie, put it at a Board of Regents meeting in March.

New York ranks 46th in the nation for fourth-grade math and has demonstrated “no meaningful improvement” in fourth- or eighth-grade reading or math scores for more than a decade, according to the State Education Department’s statement from 2022.

School shutdowns during the pandemic only compounded these learning setbacks. A report by Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli in March showed that younger students in New York State performed far worse than the national average between 2019 and 2022.

The education department is using test scores from the 2021-22 academic year — the worst in the state’s history — as the basis for lowering proficiency thresholds on state assessments. As part of New York’s overhaul of academic standards, to be completed by 2025, these new standards artificially elevate student performance.

“They’re resetting the benchmark every two, three years to obfuscate their failure,” the co-founder of an education center that advocates for academic rigor in K-12 public schools, Place NYC, and a mother of two children who attended public schools, Yiatin Chu, tells the Sun.

When state assessment scores are released this fall, the new standards will make it difficult to compare results to prior years. Changes to the exams over the past decade have made it impossible to track trends over time, as officials have warned not to compare results to prior years when aspects of the tests are modified.

“It’s very important for parents to have an objective standardized metric on how our school system is performing,” Ms. Chu says, noting that report cards are inadequate alternatives to determining student proficiency.

“Grades are subjective and depend on you being liked by the teacher, the degree of rigor in what is taught, the attitude of the principal and teachers,” Ms. Chu says. “A 95 in one school is not the same as a 95 in another school.”

To make matters worse, New York State is failing to release the scores on time for the second year in a row — a delay fueling frustration by public school advocates in a state that ranks no. 1 in education spending.

Parents and school leaders view this as a pattern of concealing student information past the start of the school year rather than August, as was standard in the past.

“Withholding this data not only makes NYSED look like it’s hiding something, it prevents needed public debate about the status of education in New York,” the president and chief executive of the nonprofit thinktank Empire Center of Public Policy, Tim Hoefer, said in a statement .

The problem goes beyond New York. In 2022, only five states released their results in June or July in advance of the new school year, while 35 states and the District of Columbia released their results in September or later — far from standard practice, an education analyst who served in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration, Chad Aldeman, tells the Sun.

Mr. Aldeman argues that the delays are more the products of political processes than due to technical problems: While the ACT and SAT tests are sold on the private market and typically return results to students within two weeks, state tests are exercises in compliance with the federal testing mandate and are subject to disruptions within the states’ own testing systems.

States are subject to release data for teachers and parents under the Freedom of Information Law, which is designed to ensure the public’s right to government records.

Last fall, Empire filed a lawsuit against the New York State education department for failing to meet a FOIL deadline to disclose statewide English and mathematics test results. Under the same transparency law, the public policy group won a court ruling two years earlier requiring the state health department to promptly release the full coronavirus death tolls in New York nursing homes.

“Parents more than anyone deserve to know how their students stack up to other students in their district and around the state,” so that they can make informed decisions about what classes their children can enroll in and if they should switch schools, an education policy analyst at Empire, Emily D’Vertola, tells the Sun.

State test scores also help school administrators determine how to use the school budget to help students with remedial work, Ms. Chu, who served on the leadership team of her childrens’ New York public school, says.

While most U.S. states administer high-tech tests that can quickly and transparently diagnose learning differences and knowledge gaps amongst students, New York is mostly still testing students using handwritten test booklets and paper Scantrons — an outdated system that is causing schools to access results once it’s too late to use them meaningfully.

The state, though, consistently devotes more resources than any other to education, with its per-student spending 85 percent above the national average, according to the latest Census Bureau data .

“For all of this spending we’re doing, we really are behind the ball when it comes to innovating and providing the most effective testing methods,” Ms. D’Vertola says.

State spending prioritizes teacher salaries and increasing the size of its education department rather than helping students perform better, Ms. Chu says. “I don’t like to spend more than what I spend on taxes, but for every parent, you have your one child’s education — one time to make the right decisions to help them.”

Since student test scores will not be available before the start of the 2023-24 academic year, the state adopted an amendment that allows schools to use a flexible identification process rather than test scores to identify which students will need academic intervention services prior to the first day of school.

Mr. Adleman urges Congress to step in and require a specific timeline by which states must abide so that they release the results by the deadline every year, even as they pilot new tests.

One state that has successfully taken up this responsibility is Ohio, whose legislature recently set a new requirement that the state education department must release test scores to parents no later than June 30 annually.

“The federal government counts on states to develop their own standards for learning and assessment to ensure that all of the students within that state are prepared for life,” Ms. D’Vertola says.

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