Breaking down the changes to this year’s state tests in New York
ALBANY — State standardized tests this spring will look slightly different than in previous years, state education officials said, with the participation of teachers in the creation of the exams, fewer questions and more time for students who need it.
Officials said the change won’t stop there, as the state moves toward computer-based testing and addresses issues with the current third- through eighth-grade math and English language arts exams — problems that last spring helped drive one of the largest test refusal movements in the nation.
“We’re really excited about the changes we have planned for assessments this year and going forward,” Peter Swerdzewski, assistant commissioner of the education department’s office of state assessment, told POLITICO New York. “I think our multi-year plan will continue to help contribute to student learning and educational equity in the state.”
The state’s ability to include teachers in the test creation process and switch to computer-based testing is part of $44-million, five-year contract with Minneapolis-based testing company Questar Assessment, Inc.
This summer the state chose Questar to replace education-publishing giant Pearson after tests it developed came under intense scrutiny, especially as the state transitioned to Common Core-aligned standards. Mistakes on the Pearson-developed tests included questions with ambiguous answers or multiple correct answers as well as missing pages and translation errors.
This spring the state standardized tests will still be Pearson-developed, as per the contract.
The test creation process takes between two and three years, Swerdzewski said. So the questions were field-tested last year. Field tests are given to a portion of students to create potential questions for future exams, but do not count towards the students’ grades. The questions can be embedded in the actual exams or on their own administered separately.
In response to concerns that teachers have not had input in creating the tests, the state education department brought in 72 educators to initially review the Pearson tests. Another 48 took the field-tested questions and created the final test forms, and then 36 separate educators reviewed the test forms before they went to print — for a total of 156 educators, according to the department.
“The biggest difference is that Questar is working as a partner with us and a facilitator going forward as educators build our tests,” Swerdzewski said. “With Pearson we asked them to build the tests for New York.”
This month the state will bring in educators from around the state to learn how to write good questions, and begin the process of writing questions that would be field-tested in spring 2017 and used on the 2018 exams. By 2018 the department hopes to have all questions written by teachers with the assistance of Questar, he said.
Amid concerns regarding the over-testing of students, the state Legislature allocated funding to the state education department to reduce field testing.
Field testing, however, will never be fully eliminated, because the state uses it as a way to test questions for the next year.
“We want to make sure that our tests are valid, reliable and fair to all students,” Swerdzewski said of the field-test questions.
By creating new tests each year the state can release the questions after the tests are given to be used as instructional tools for teachers, he said. “By using these test questions in day-to-day classroom teaching we believe these questions will be one of many tools that educators can use to help ensure students are learning what they need to learn.”
The state last year released 50 percent of the exam questions. This year the state will release at least 60 percent, eventually hoping to be able to release all the exam questions, with the exception of the field tests that will be used on the subsequent year’s exams, Swerdzewski said.
Using the additional funding, the state created up to 11 exams, each with different field test questions. By embedding the questions in the exams for certain students, as volunteered by their districts, 25 percent fewer students will have to participate in the stand-alone field tests, he said. The state hopes to move away from the stand-alone tests and eventually have the questions embedded in the actual operation exams.
Along with reductions in the field tests, the state also is looking to reduce the operational exams.
Last spring more than 20 percent, or about 240,000, of eligible third- through eighth-grade students opted not to take the state standardized, Common Core-aligned exams. One of the reasons given was perceived over-testing as students spend three days on the math exams and three days on the English.
“We’re trying to decrease the test by as many test questions as we can while still maintaining the validity,” Swerdzewski said.
A memo sent out to district superintendents last week outlined those changes.
The third- and fourth-grade English tests will have four passages instead of five this year, and six fewer multiple choice questions, which corresponded to the passage, bringing the total multiple choice questions down to 24, according to the memo. The state also eliminated one of the constructed response, or short essay portion.
The fifth- through eighth-grade exams will have one fewer English passage and seven fewer multiple choice questions, which corresponded with the passage, bring it down to 35 multiple choice questions, according to the memo. The state also eliminated one of the essay questions.
As for the math exams, the third-grade exam will have 22 multiple choice questions compared to the 24 last year. The fourth- and fifth-grade exams will have four fewer, brining the total to 45. And the sixth- through eighth-grade exams will have four fewer, at 51 multiple choice questions.
The state is looking at further reductions for future exams, Swerdzewski said.
More time on tests
In response to comments education commissioner MaryEllen Elia heard in her listening tour of the state, as well as recommendations made by the governor’s Common Core task force, students will have more time to take the exams this year if they need it, Swerdzewski said.
Students who are working productively can take more time to finish the exams.
State Board of Regents chancellor Merryl Tisch had floated the idea of having untimed tests last spring in an effort to reduce stress, but stakeholders shot down the idea.
Educators have expressed concern over the logistics of where to put students who are still working and what happens if they run into lunch time — issues the education department will address with a guidance memo soon to be released, Swerdzewski said.
This year will also be the first year the state tries computer-based testing. Almost half of the districts in the state, about 900 schools, have signed up to participate in computer-based field testing, according to the department.
Some districts began computer-based field testing in 2014 after the state joined the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC. The consortium of 16 states and the District of Columbia uses a federal competitive grant to develop Common Core-aligned, mostly computer-based exams.
The transition to computer-based testing statewide was pushed off partly because districts’ capacity to offer the exams widely varied.
This year’s trial run will allow the state to get feedback and address issues that arise.
“Our long-term plans for computer-based testing will allow us to consider options never before available to us, including tests for which scores come back almost immediately; tests that feature innovative test questions that harness the power of the computer; and computer-adaptive testing, which provides shorter and more targeted tests,” Swerdzewski said.
Still room for change
Some parent groups still haven’t bought into the idea that the department is actually making changes, so they plan to opt out their children from exams this spring. Elia has been working to decrease the number of opt-outs.
“The reality is they didn’t significantly reduce the testing time. It’s still six days long,” said Lisa Rudley, a Westchester County parent who is a founding member of New York State Allies for Public Education, a leader in the opt-out movement.
“There still will be test prep and again the process has not been very transparent.”
Rudley conceded, however, that the department is headed in the right direction.
“Under the best circumstance it’s going to take some time to unwind this,” she said, though the state is not moving “with the same intensity that we want them to."
The state is in the process of reviewing the standards, and until the assessments are age and developmentally appropriate, and not Common Core-aligned, Rudley said they will continue to call on parents to opt-out their children.
“We should get a waiver form taking the state tests,” she said. “I don’t have the confidence that Commissioner Elia wants to really deeply look at the standards and really deeply move the tests where they need to be.”
At a joint legislative budget hearing last week, Elia defended herself, saying she is a “trustworthy” person: “When I say I’m going to do something, we’re going to do it.”
Read the memo to districts on testing changes here: http://politi.co/23FhHFN.