[Home Page] [This Week] [Classifieds] [Legals] [Obituaries] [Newsstands] [Subscriptions] [Advertising] [Deadlines] [About Us] [FAQ] [Archives] [Community Links] [Contact Us]

Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, June 24, 2010

Making the grade
State cuts some tests, adds others to rate teachers

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — As the state adds to school requirements to get a better shot at federal funding, local districts, like Guilderland, are left scrambling.

“The annual measurable objective will increase two [percentage] points every year,” Demian Singleton, Guilderland’s assistant superintendent for instruction, told the school board Tuesday night. “It will be difficult, but I think we’ll be OK.”

He also said that, by 2014, one-hundred percent of students will have to “reach proficiency” regardless of their socio-economic status or disabilities.

In New York, test scores for elementary and middle-school students are assessed at four levels; students who score in the lowest two levels have to be provided with academic intervention services.

On Tuesday, Singleton and Mary Helen Collen, Guilderland’s data coordinator, presented the inch-thick annual school report card, based on testing data from the 2008-09 school year.

“It’s always nice to get a good report card,” said the board’s president, Richard Weisz. “Thank you and keep up the good work.”

Although the report was upbeat, Singleton said he was “mindful” of changes the State Education Department is making to align itself with the federal Race to the Top and the No Child Left Behind legislation. Many of Guilderland’s school board members have, in the past, decried sacrificing a rich curriculum to focus instead on test scores.

“The creative approach to instruction suffers,” Singleton said yesterday when asked about the impact of increased testing. “This year, I’ve noticed it like never before because they’ve compressed the testing to four or five weeks in the spring. I have never seen so much stress and pressure felt by classroom teachers.”

A school district cannot afford to ignore the statewide tests. “There’s still the accountability piece,” said Singleton. “We certainly don’t want to be a district labeled in need of improvement. We’ve tried very hard to maintain a balance between a test-driven mentality and an authentic approach to learning.”

Teachers to be judged by students’ progress

Another big change that Guilderland and districts across the state are facing is in the way teachers are evaluated. Beginning with the next school year, teachers and principals will be rated as highly effective, effective, developing, or ineffective. And the ratings will be determined in part by student growth — that is, by the change in student achievement between at least two points in times.

So, teachers, in preparing students for exams, will be sealing their own fates.

Singleton told The Enterprise yesterday that Guilderland already uses a rubric-based evaluation system with four categories — exceeding expectations, proficient, needs improvement, and unsatisfactory.

“The tricky part is the state has created a system whereby student achievement will be factored in,” he said. The state’s current testing system is not based on grade levels so that, for example, a fourth-grade math test evaluates learning students have done since kindergarten.

“The fairness issue is something teachers are very cognizant of,” said Singleton, adding it’s likely more tests will be developed “to measure growth over time as influenced by individual teachers.” There are no tests to evaluate student progress in subjects like music and art.

“This is real,” Singleton stressed, noting the New York State United Teachers had signed off on it. “It’s coming. We’re still awaiting details.”

Asked if he believed it is a good idea to evaluate teachers based on student performance, Singleton said, “Plenty of research indicates it’s not. You have so many variables that influence learning besides just the teacher,” he said, naming home life and socio-economic status.

The motivation behind the state push, he said, is to qualify for federal Race to the Top funding; New York State stands to get $700 million in federal funds if it meets federal requirements.

Guilderland would get an estimated $53,000 of those funds, Singleton said, noting, “That’s not a huge impact on a school budget.” Guilderland’s budget for next year is $87.4 million.

Cutting test costs

The Guilderland report, based on state-required tests, was presented on the same day that the state’s Board of Regents, which governs education in New York, approved two strategies to cut costs.

The statewide exams cost roughly $40 million last year. The governor has proposed cutting $4.7 million from the State Education Department as well as over $1.5 billion in school aid. The legislature and governor have been unable to agree on a budget, which was due April 1.

If the state budget includes the $7 million the Regents have requested for testing, according to a release from the education department, $4.2 million will be cut by hiring fewer specialists to develop tests, discontinuing paper-based scoring materials for tests, eliminating retesting for high-school math and English, and eliminating social studies tests for fifth and eighth grades.

Further cuts will be made if the state budget doesn’t include the $7 million the Regents requested or if the budget isn’t adopted by Aug. 1. These further cuts would include eliminating eighth-grade proficiency tests for foreign languages, cutting some August Regents exams, eliminating all foreign language exams in high school except for Spanish and French, eliminating all January Regents exams, and ending translation of state assessments into Chinese, Haitian-Creole, Korean, and Russian.

Board member Gloria Towle-Hilt, a retired middle-school social studies teacher, said at Tuesday’s meeting that she found the proposed elimination of social studies testing discouraging and worrisome. “As you push districts into narrower bands, I worry about the teaching of social studies,” she said.

Since Guilderland meets the required adequate yearly progress for English and math, Singleton said, “We can continue to have a strong social studies program.” He said he worries, though, about the school districts that do not meet the English and math requirements. “Will those schools teach social studies?” he asked.

Board member Colleen O’Connell pointed out that, if social studies is not taught in the middle school, students will suffer when they take history Regents exams in high school.

Towle-Hilt also commented on the discontinuance of paper scoring materials, which will have to be printed out by school districts rather than the state: “They’re reducing their costs and increasing ours,” she said.

On the proposed reduction in testing costs, Singleton said he thinks test materials will be recycled. In past years, he said, earlier exams could be used as teaching tools. But, as test developing consultants are cut, the same test questions will be used again. “Security will be much greater,” said Singleton.

Supporting students who have disabilities

The report card shows that each of Guilderland’s seven schools — five elementary schools, a middle school, and a high school — is a “school in good standing.”

It also shows that 90 percent of the cohort of 479 that started high school together in 2005 graduated in 2009.  Of those 425 students, 95 percent received Regents diplomas and 93 percent went on to either two-year or four-year colleges.

Page after page of the 2008-09 report card show lines of green check marks for making the required adequate yearly progress across grades and subjects. The only exception is a brown “X” for students with disabilities not making adequate progress for secondary English.

This shortcoming was recently pointed out by a consultant the district hired to make recommendations on its special education program. (For the full story, go online to www.altamontenterprise.com and look under Guilderland archives for June 17, 2010.)  Futures Education also pointed out that the graduation rate for students with disabilities is low, at 59 percent, in sharp contrast with other, similar schools, and nine points short of being in a “safe harbor.”

Superintendent John McGuire said on Tuesday that the full report from Futures Education, due by July, will be reviewed by a committee. “The report does have potential,” he said. Some recommendations, like refining entrance and exit criteria for special education programs, can be quickly implemented while others, like a change in staffing ratios, will require “thoughtful reflection,” said McGuire.

He estimated the “enhancement process” could take three to five years.

Singleton reported on Tuesday that, of the 50 students with disabilities who completed school at Guilderland in 2009, twelve of them received an IEP (Individualized Education Program) diploma, which is not counted by the state as graduating. Twenty-six received a Regents diploma (and eight of those with advanced designation) and 12 students received a local diploma.

“First and foremost,” Singleton said yesterday when asked about improving Guilderland’s graduation rate, “we have to reduce the number of kids who receive IEP diplomas.” Planning for this, he said, will have to begin at the middle-school level.

Recent cuts in specialized staff will make it more difficult to provide needed support, he said, but more flexibility in scheduling will help.

“We’re engaged in a lot of conversation for program changes,” Singleton told the school board about what was being done to improve scores on the English Regents exam.

He noted that this year’s budget, in a time of fiscal crisis, didn’t allow for the recommended changes to the high school’s block schedule, which would have provided time for additional help for struggling students.

Singleton elaborated yesterday, “Right now, our students overall do exceptionally well on the English Regents exam. We have to be cautious not to revamp a program that’s working well. The biggest question is, how can we provide support to the students who need it.”

The state is changing the English Regents format from a two-day test to a three-hour exam, which should help special-needs students “from a stamina perspective,” he said.

Singleton told the board that the flexibility option for students with special needs is being phased out, despite objections from the state’s education commissioner. Only 1 percent of students with special needs will be allowed to take alternate assessments, rather than the standard state-required tests, he said.

Guilderland has classified 13.43 percent of its students as having disabilities, compared to 12.5 percent statewide.

 According to the report card, for the 2007-08 school year, Guilderland spent $8,326 for each of its 5,293 general-education students and $20,585 for each of its 777 special-education students. (This compares with $11,471 and $30,982 for similar districts, and $10,257 and $24,479 for all public schools.)

In outlining five priorities for the district, Singleton said it is “paramount” to continue to support students with disabilities so they can “achieve adequate yearly progress on all accountability measures.”

“This will be our greatest challenge,” he said.

Two other priorities also deal with struggling students. One is to use a “Response to Intervention model,” which the state mandates for elementary schools by 2012. The model helps struggling students early on, rather than waiting to identify them as needing special education. Guilderland will phase in an RTI model for reading, beginning in September, Singleton said. The other is to intervene with literacy and math specialists early on in the elementary schools.

A fourth priority is to put in a district-wide management system, called Performance Tracker, to diagnose student needs and provide support. This system will roll out in the fall, said Singleton, along with new teacher training, and will become the “hub” for progress management.

The final goal is to “sustain curriculum mapping to promote ongoing and collaborative review of programs, alignment with state learning standards, and articulation of essential learning within and across disciplines.”

“This is, without question, a time of change,” Singleton said yesterday. “What we heard Tuesday from State Ed. Is just the beginning.”

The question that has to be asked, said Singelton, is: “Are we testing the right things — for 21st-Century skills of creativity and problem solving?”

He concluded, “Significant changes are on the horizon.”

[Return to Home Page]