State Education Department Adjusts Assessment Cut Scores

By Michael Mell

The NYS Education Department has raised the bar for what it means to be proficient. The new increased scoring “cut” for English and math assessments means that some students that were graded as proficient in the past will no longer have that standing. Driving the change is an effort by recently appointed Educational Commissioner David Steiner to identify students needing assistance sooner in their educational careers. “New, higher cut scores have resulted in fewer students scoring at a ‘proficient level’,” said Steiner. “While that is sobering news, it should cause all of us . . . to work more effectively together to ensure that all children in New York State get the knowledge and skills they need.” 

Early intervention
Studies have shown a clear correlation between grade 3 assessment tests and college success. Early identification of student proficiency in these areas can provide a useful indication to parents and schools as to whether a student is on-track for college success. In seeking a more effective format for these tests, the commissioner proposes to move away from reliance on multiple-choice questions to a more in-depth format that will demonstrate students’ abilities to think and analyze. Because these skills are required for success in both high school and college, the changes are not “one-shot” efforts but part of a long-term effort to improve student performance.

Cut score changes
Third grade assessment tests are based upon an 800-point system. Depending upon a student’s score, they are placed into one of four levels: 1- not proficient, 2- partially proficient, 3- proficient and 4-more than proficient. Those scoring on levels 1 and 2 are required to receive Academic Intervention Services (AIS.) Under the new criteria, students now must achieve a minimum score of 680, up from 650, to be “proficient.” Predictably, this change has increased the number of students determined to be partially proficient and in need of AIS.

New Ranges for 2009/10
English Language Arts (ELA)

 

     

 

Grade
3

Level 4
6
37.5%

Level 3
4
25%

Level 2
5
31.25%

Level 1
1
6.25%

 Previous Ranges for 2008/9
English Language Arts (ELA)

Grade

Level 4

Level 3

Level 2

Level 1

3

0
0%

14
87.5%

2
12.5%

0
0%

The upper line indicates the number of students and the lower that number as a percentage of third grade students. Data from recent GUFS test results and is courtesy of the Garrison Unified Free School District.

Where test scores under the previous range clustered a majority of students in level 3, the new cut scores have drastically reduced those students in level 3 and moved a significant number up to level 4 and, of more concern, down to level 2. Similar shifts are also present in ELA and math testing for grades 4-8.

Impact to Schools
The increase in students requiring AIS presents challenges to schools in staffing, scheduling and budget. School district budgets for the current year have been set, and most are already stretched thin. At this time it is not known whether Reach to the Top funds, recently awarded to NY State, may be used for AIS.  Additional AIS classes will have to be accommodated within the existing budget with existing staff. Curriculum for all students will also remain in flux as new assessment testing formats are developed and implemented.
       “The mandated testing and the process involved in scoring the tests have resulted in loss of instructional time” said Garrison Superintendent Gloria Colucci, “and added costs at a time when schools and communities can afford neither.” Haldane Superintendent Dr. Mark Villanti expressed the view of many school districts saying that “we would have liked more notice.”
       Test grading increasingly eats into teachers’ instructional time. Often substitute teachers, another hidden cost, run the classrooms while teachers are grading assessment tests. Many New York parents grew up filling in circles to identify a chosen answer on these tests. This allowed teachers to use a template to grade the tests. Nowadays computers can perform this task by scanning the documents. The longer-form questions now in place and those anticipated in the future will require additional time for grading, as teachers will have much more to read. In addition, the more subjective nature of these kinds of questions often requires grading by a second teacher. Some school districts, Haldane and Garrison among them, have discussed sharing of this task.

 Goals and results of Assessment Tests
Assessment tests are a common tool used by school districts to set academic standards and evaluate student performance. By indicating the results that districts, schools, teachers and students are expected to achieve, they provide targets for teaching and learning, and shape the performance of educators and students. The intent of these tests, in conjunction with other indicators, is to create a foundation for evaluation of the effectiveness of the education students receive. On a political note, it also provides a basis for accountability locally and state-wide.
       Still, these standardized tests are only one tool for student evaluation. “We must keep in mind that a single test in a subject area is just one measure” said Gloria Colucci, “and not the only factor that determines a child’s or a school’s achievement level.” GUFS recent selection as a National Blue Ribbon School would appear to support this contention. Dr. Villanti, while praising the Commissioner’s goals, also insisted that Haldane students “are already doing well.”
       Assessment tests take two basic forms: ‘norm-referenced tests’, which compare a student’s performance to other students and ‘standards-based tests’, which compare a student’s performance to a set of academic standards. These tests can include multiple-choice questions, short-answer or longer essays. The changes recently implemented by Commissioner Steiner appear to move towards more long-form questions to evaluate student performance.

Options
While recognizing the goals of assessment tests, school districts remain leery of what amounts to yet another unfunded mandated imposed by the state. This is especially so for school districts whose students already perform above minimum standards. These districts question the need for yearly evaluations with their attendant costs. GUFS Superintendent Colucci has suggested that annual evaluations may not be necessary, “if a school has proven to be high performing year after year.” Another common desire is for additional financial support and alternative scoring options to ease the burden imposed by the change in cut scores.

Teaching to the test?
Educators acknowledge that assessment tests present only a snap-shot of student performance. Class work, home work, projects and extra-curricular work combine to present a more rounded picture. Curriculum, teachers, administrators, parents and a student’s life outside of school also contribute to student performance. On the Aug. 31 edition of VoxPop, a WAMC radio call-in show, Commission Steiner described his belief that, because of the many and various conditions affecting student performance, across-the-state comparisons are not necessarily valid. Assessment tests, however, are a ready indicator for administrators to use in evaluating student, and by inference teacher and district performance. The result is that the standardized ELA and math tests have become the 900-pound gorilla all must accommodate. This obligation cannot help but be in the minds of teachers and administrator. Teaching to the test, at the expense of “real” instruction, is a criticism that has been leveled at New York state school districts for many years. Acknowledging Steiner’s rationale, Superintendent Dr. Villanti stated that while Haldane would continue to provide AIS, for selected students, they “will not just be cramming for the test.” Striking an appropriate balance will continue to be an ongoing challenge for educators.


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