State to apply for federal waiver to try out new school evaluation system
ALBANY — A new type of assessment system could be in the works for New York as the state Education Department plans to apply for a federal pilot program under the new Every Student Succeeds Act — a program lawmakers said was written with New York in mind.
The federal legislation, which passed in December and replaced the broad No Child Left Behind law, would initially give waivers to seven states allowing them to have a school district, or in some cases the whole state or consortium of states, the opportunity to operate a new assessment system in lieu of state tests for accountability purposes, according to federal lawmakers involved in creating the bill.
“We’re probably going to apply for any kind of relief we could have in being one of those states that does pilot programs with certain types of assessments,” state education commissioner MaryEllen Elia told POLITICO New York. “I’ve got people that are watching for that to come out so that we can be one of the ones that applies, but we don’t know if we’ll get it.”
When asked if the pilot would be for one school district or for the entire state, Elia said they would wait to see what guidance the the federal education department issues. It still is unclear when the application process will open.
The pilot is for a five-year period, and after the third year, the federal education secretary will do a study to see how the states are doing and could then open it up to all states, according to federal lawmakers. States that receive the pilot waiver would also be given the opportunity, after five years, to further extend the program another two years, with the goal of scaling up the new assessment system and running it statewide.
The search for an alternative program comes at a time of turmoil in New York over the current testing system.
Last spring more than 20 percent of eligible students, about 240,000, refused to take the state standardized, Common Core-aligned third- through eighth-grade math and English language arts exams. Parents cited several reasons for having their students opt out, including a belief that the tests are not age appropriate and that students are over tested.
Education advocates and teachers’ unions have questioned the use of the test scores in the teacher and principal evaluations, saying they are unreliable. The notion was backed up by the American Statistical Association, which previously said the formula the state uses to calculate student growth based on test scores should not be used in teacher evaluations.
In December the state Board of Regents passed a moratorium putting a hold on the use of the third- through eighth-grade test scores on teacher and principal evaluations through the 2019-2020 school year.
The state education department is currently in the process of reviewing the Common Core learning standards, assessments and evaluations.
The department and Board of Regents also are working to create different pathways to graduation for high school students, including a proposal for project-based assessments, something the waiver would help them expand.
Among the proposals Elia presented to the board on Monday were plans to implement a program in which projects could replace state exams such as Regents for students at risk of dropping out of high school. The program could eventually expand as an option for all students, but t will take a significant amount of time and money to implement properly, Elia said.
“We have to start to develop this as an option and work slowly on it to get it right with our teachers and have them involved in the development of it," she said.
If it does apply, New York State might have a leg up on other states in terms of receiving a waiver.
The federal pilot program was created with the efforts underway in New York and New Hampshire in mind, federal lawmakers told POLITICO New York.
New Hampshire already is conducting an assessment pilot program through a previous waiver.
“I think the pilot program is tailor-made for New York’s consortium schools,” American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, a former leader of New York City's United Federation of Teachers, told POLITICO New York.
The New York Performance Standards Consortium Schools, a group of nearly 30 schools that began in 1997, which use performance-based assessments for the lion's share of student evaluation, rather than standard testing.
The consortium currently includes high school and middle school students who do analytical essays, research papers, science experiments and applied mathematics. Instead of testing, the students must show what they’ve learned, in some cases like a dissertation, having to defend their work to teachers and even volunteers.
“I would encourage New York to look at [the pilot] as a way of using it as a centerpiece in accountability,” Weingarten said. “It could be something that New York’s teachers and school districts could really get their arms around and I think New York’s parents would love because it differentiates instruction to the needs of individual kids.”
Weingarten served on the governor’s Common Core task force, which in December recommended the moratorium on the use of test scores on teacher evaluations as was adopted by the Regents. The moratorium would end at the same time as the pilot when the state would be looking to possibly adopt a new accountability system statewide.
Rep. Chris Gibson, a possible 2018 Republican gubernatorial candidate, also urged the state to apply at a December news conference.
“If we can get in that pilot, we can further reduce the frequency of testing,” he told reporters while visiting a St. Johnsville school in Montgomery County.
It is unclear whether federal acting secretary of education John King — New York’s former state education c ommissioner who championed the Common Core and helped usher in the use of teacher evaluations tied to state assessments under No Child Left Behind and the federal Race To The Top grant program — will give his blessing.
After the controversy over what has come to be called the “flawed” implementation of the Common Core, there is some concern over having the state jump into a federal program, such as the pilot.
New York State Association of School Business Officials executive director Michael Borges told POLITICO New York said he hopes the state will have learned from the previous programs.
"I am sure Commissioner Elia will solicit input from external stakeholders before submitting a proposal to avoid some of the pitfalls encountered in the Race to the Top application,” Borges said.
Read about the pilot program in Section 1204 of the law here: http://1.usa.gov/1mS42e1.