Who makes the (new) grade?

School officials now have to explain state changes on test scores

ALBANY– State Education Commissioner David Steiner announced new standards in grading of the state English and Math assessments in 3 through 8 grades last week. The new standards, or as the state calls them “cut points,” apply to tests students took during the 2009-10 school year, so the grade some students received in June will be different when they return to school in September.

In separate interviews with The Columbia Paper, both Chatham School District Superintendent Cheryl Nuciforo and Ichabod Crane Interim Superintendent Lee Bordick expressed support for the state’s decision to reevaluate the test scores, but they questioned the timing.

“Kids are not doing worse,” said Ms. Nuciforo. Instead, she said, the state’s action on the cut points is “a redefinition of what we think is successful.” She and Mr. Bordick said they, along with their district administrators, are analyzing the data now and will have more information for parents soon. At a School Board meeting last week Mr. Bordick said the new standards could mean as many as 30 additional students in his district will need some type of academic intervention.

Students in the lower grades are graded using the numbers 1 through 4. In the old system, a 1 or a 2 identified students performing below grade level, a 3 indicated a student’s work was at grade level, and a 4 meant a student was working above grade level.

Under the new system, a 2 means that students are performing at “basic” grade level, but the new state standard that aims to achieve proficiency, and it takes a 3 for a student to qualify as proficient. And because the changes are retroactive and will change the scores students earned on tests they have already taken, administrators are wondering what they’re supposed to do now.

Ms. Nuciforo said it’s important that parents understand that though the percentages say more students scored in the 2 range doesn’t mean students failed or that they all need intervention. “As long as we can make parents understand it’s not a failure of their children or of the school, it’s just a change in the standard,” she said.

In a press release on the state Department of Education website, Commissioner Steiner says the new standards align with national standards and with research that shows where students need to be in the lower grades to pass their statewide Regents exams in high school and do college work successfully.

“We do a great disservice when we say that a child is proficient when that child is not. Nowhere is this more true than among our students who are most in need,” said Regents Chancellor Merryl H. Trisch in a press release.

Ms. Nuciforo said the district hasn’t gotten any word from the state on what comes next for students who are now scoring in the “basic” range.

Mr. Bordick echoed that point, saying, “We’re looking for direction from the state.” He also mentioned the national testing programs that other states have embraced. He believes that inevitably New York will adopt tests more like those national ones and that the state may someday do away with the Regents exams, replacing them with national tests.

The Education Department’s release quotes President Obama in his State of the Union address when he said, “In a global economy, a good education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity it is a pre-requisite.” The Obama administration is offering states an opportunity to improve their schools with its Race to the Top program, which offers up to $700 million to states to apply to improve their schools. The Race to the Top funds are awarded to the states on a competitive basis, and New York did not receive a grant during the first round of applications earlier this year. In an effort to win the funds, state lawmakers have raised the cap on the number of charter schools the state will authorize. But the competition also looks at whether states link teacher evaluations to test scores and at the test scores themselves.

At the ICC meeting last week Mr. Bordick made the connection between the new cut points imposed by the state and the state’s application for Race to the Top funds, saying the state had taken the action to strengthen its application.

Ms. Nuciforo says that while Race to the Top money a “very powerful motivation” for the state to improve school performance, proficiency standards needed to be reviewed no matter what. But she believes the decision by state officials to change the scores has more to do with new commissioner, who was appointed in October, and changes at Education Department.

Ms. Nuciforo is not surprised the state has reevaluated the cut points for grading students, but she anticipates that explaining the change to parents will be difficult, especially since the new standards apply to tests students already have taken. “It makes it harder for us in the field to deal with it…. It makes it hard for parents,” she said.

Mr. Bordick sees the situation in a similar light. But neither administrator suggested that the new standards would raise costs, at least not at this point.

Ms. Nuciforo said the scores will be a topic for discussion at the next Chatham Board of Education meeting Tuesday, August 10, at 6:30 in the high school library. The Ichabod Crane Board will discuss the matter at its next meeting Tuesday August 17 at 7 p.m. in the middle school library.

For more information on the districts is at the websites at www.chathamcentralschools.com and www.ichabodcrane.org. The state Education Department website is nysed.gov.

To contact reporter Emilia Teasdale email .

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