January 13, 2014

Testing waiver catch-22 for districts

Option to forgo 7th, 8th grade assessments could hurt schools

Bob Ellis/staff photographer

Homer Junior High School eighth-grade math teacher Stacey Porter checks students’ homework in her class Friday.

Homer Junior High School eighth-grade math teacher Stacey Porter checks students’ homework in her class Friday.

A Jan. 2 statement from the state’s Education Department announcing a reduction in testing for junior high math students is receiving a lukewarm reception from local school superintendents.

The waiver, recently granted by the U.S. Department of Education, gives districts the option to excuse seventh- and eighth-grade algebra 1 and geometry students from a federally mandated, Common-Core aligned general math test given to all students in grades three through eight.

Instead, students enrolled in geometry or algebra 1 courses will only be required to take the state’s Regents exam in those subjects at the conclusion of their course. The waiver will effectively end the “double-testing” of these students, beginning with the spring 2014 assessments, according to the state Education Department.

While most educators agree that the elimination of needless testing is a good thing, a caveat that comes associated with the waiver has some local superintendents worried.

“If in fact you don’t double test, it can impact our high school’s accountability and the student as well,” said Homer Superintendent of Schools Nancy Ruscio.

Previously, scores from seventh- and eighth-grade students who took either the geometry or algebra 1 Regents exams counted toward their future high school’s accountability, which can dictate a school’s effectiveness rating.

If a school is deemed ineffective over multiple years, the state can intervene, effectively eliminating local autonomy. If a school continues to fail to demonstrate effectiveness according to state standards, it could be shut down.

“Obviously it’s not something that happens frequently,” Ruscio said. “But the state can become very directive in how they do things. Any time those that are closest to the classroom lose autonomy, that can be bad for the students, I think.”

McGraw Superintendent of Schools Mary Curcio said a consequence of negating seventh- and eighth-graders’ scores in calculating a high school’s accountability can have other negative side effects for a district.

“For a small district, it might hurt us if you take those accelerated students out of the equation,” Curcio said.

Ruscio also voiced concern over the fact that the earning of a Regents by an eighth-grade student in either algebra 1 or geometry would not satisfy a high school math requirement unless that student also took and passed the general eighth-grade math assessment, previously required of all eighth-graders before the federal waiver.

Because of this, Ruscio said that Homer will most likely continue to require its eighth-grade students enrolled in algebra and geometry to take the general eighth-grade math assessment.

That way, advanced students’ scores would count toward Homer High School’s accountability score and also enable them to knock out a high school graduation requirement with a satisfactory grade on their algebra 1 or geometry Regents exams.

Freeing students of the general math assessment in eighth grade could also throw a wrench in the works of districts whose annual professional performance review plan utilizes students’ results on that test in order to grade teachers on their teaching ability. Such is the case in McGraw.

“The big issues is if it’s written into your (APPR) plan,” said Curcio, who is reluctant to alter the district’s recently completed plan. “Our committee put in a lot of time and a lot of work into that plan.”

Any changes to a district’s APPR plan have to be OK’d by the state Education Department; a process, said Curcio, that is rife with red tape.

Though she reserved judgment over whether McGraw would excuse its junior high algebra 1 and geometry students from the eighth grade general math assessment, Curcio said she was leaning toward keeping the test in place, saying that it could potentially remove a burden from junior high students in algebra 1 and geometry, but at the cost of McGraw’s other students.

Cortland Superintendent of Schools Mike Hoose called the waiver, “a good, small first step,” though he nursed reservations about whether it goes far enough.

“I think there’s (still) too much testing. It takes away from instruction time,” Hoose said. “I’d like to see more authentic assessments, project based tests.”

Alane Van Donsel, president of Cortland’s Board of Education, likewise hailed the waiver as a “step in the right direction,” but was skeptical that it went far enough.

“It definitely doesn’t go far enough as far as altering testing,” she said.

“I think the state has in certain ways tried to demonstrate they’re listening,” Ruscio said. “Unfortunately, the path that they choose doesn’t always work out for us in the field.”

“It looks like it’s a big deal, when in the long run it’ll make things harder (for districts),” Curcio added.

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