January 22, 2016

Fortino: Inaccurate benchmarks for student test scores lead to inaccurate conclusions

Author: Vice President Catalina Fortino
Source: Newsday

An abridged version of this letter to the editor by Vice President Catalina Fortino ran on Newsday's opinion page Friday, Jan. 22, 2016.

Faulty measures of college readiness

By Catalina Fortino

The information technology sector uses a slang expression to describe what happens when the failure to use accurate and reliable data leads to inaccurate – and occasionally nonsensical – conclusions.

"Garbage in, garbage out."

fortinoIt's an expression that might also be used to describe the State Education Department's seriously flawed benchmarks for college and career readiness, which Newsday, unfortunately, accepts as accurate in its January 18 editorial (LI's troubling high school graduation gap.) Indeed, the state's arbitrary measurement of what constitutes "college and career readiness" lies at the root of much of the turmoil facing public education. Its flawed methodology has helped fuel the opt-out movement, led to developmentally inappropriate questions on Common Core exams, and pushed the false narrative that public schools, including those on Long Island, are failing their communities.

New York State United Teachers recently released a detailed, research-backed white paper that found the benchmarks for student test scores are set so high that, to achieve proficiency, all New York students are required to score as well – or higher – than two-thirds of all college-bound students nationally.

High expectations are admirable – and necessary – to close the achievement gap. They are embraced by parents and every educator I know. But, the expectations inherent in the state's benchmarks must also fairly and accurately reflect how well public schools are preparing students for future success. If there's a disconnect between graduation rates and proficiency, that serves no one -- which is why it's worth examining how the state came up with its aspirational targets in 2013.

NYSUT found the state relied on three totally unrelated measures, none of them backed by research or study to show they are valid. One was the percent of New York students found proficient on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). A second was SED's analysis of College Board data that examined PSAT and SAT exam scores and student success in the freshman year of college.

The state's third proficiency benchmark, however, is the best example of bad input leading to bad output.

The state is using a one-year study of two Regents exams taken years ago by New York City high school students attending the City University of New York to make unsupported assumptions about current college and career readiness for Long Island students – and all students statewide.

There are no published peer-reviewed studies to support the findings that two specific Regents exams in math and English – exams which, by the way, have since been scrapped and redesigned – are reliable indicators of college readiness. There are, however numerous studies that indicate student success in high school coursework – in combination with SAT and ACT scores – are good indicators of college readiness.

Just as it did with the rushed, top-down implementation of the Common Core, the state imposed these seriously flawed benchmarks without the necessary input from education stakeholders – the modus operandi of former SED Commissioner John King. The state then rolled out massive changes in standards and testing based on a definition that was insufficiently articulated, limited in scope and not based on any reliable research.

NYSUT endorses a clearly defined vision of college and career readiness for all students – one backed by research and developed with parents and education stakeholders. It can use data if data is used properly, and should also show an appreciation for the role of the arts, music, technology and civic readiness as well as the importance of multiple pathways to graduation.

We call upon the state to scrap its current flawed system for establishing proficiency benchmarks and, working with educators, reform how it measures which students are on track for college and a successful career – and which ones need more time and support.

Catalina Fortino is vice president of New York State United Teachers.