May 2016 Issue - APPR/Teacher Evaluation, Labor Issues, Testing/Assessments and Learning Standards
June 02, 2016

Why New York's benchmarks must be reset

Author: By Sylvia Saunders
Source: NYSUT United
NYSUT Vice President Catalina Fortino. Photo by Andrew Watson.
Caption: NYSUT Vice President Catalina Fortino. Photo by Andrew Watson.

When grades 3–8 students are subjected to state tests with reading passages that are two or three years above grade level, you can blame it on the benchmarks.

And when the headlines falsely scream that too many students are not "college and career ready," you can blame it on the benchmarks.

"Inaccurate benchmarks lead to inaccurate conclusions," said NYSUT Vice President Catalina Fortino, who serves as the union's liaison with the State Education Department.

"It's garbage in, garbage out."

As policymakers move forward to overhaul the state's standards, curriculum and assessment, NYSUT continues to press SED to scrap the current benchmarks.

A NYSUT white paper calls for state education policymakers to go beyond standardized tests and consider other ways for students to demonstrate knowledge, such as projects and performance-based assessments.

By definition, a benchmark is supposed to be "something that can be used as a way to judge the quality or level of other, similar things."

Yet the state's inappropriate benchmarks for "college and career readiness" are clearly the root of much of the turmoil facing public education, Fortino said.

SED's flawed methodology, she said, helped fuel the opt-out movement, led to developmentally inappropriate questions on Common Core exams and perpetuated the false narrative that public schools are failing their communities.

Benchmarks are important because they determine the difficulty of state test questions and set cut scores for proficiency.

In a resolution at NYSUT's Representative Assembly in April, delegates urgently sounded the alarm on the bogus benchmarks — and called for SED to commission a panel, including educators and developmental psychologists, to set new developmentally appropriate standards.

The resolution echoes a NYSUT white paper released in December 2015, which found the math behind the current benchmarks just doesn't add up:

  • The benchmarks are set so a pre-determined percent of students will fail the exams.
  • Current benchmarks are set so high that, to achieve proficiency on the state's grades 3–8 ELA and math assessments, New York students must score as well as or higher than two-thirds of all college-bound students nationally.
  • SED's benchmarks were also based on a questionable one-year study of two Regents exams taken years ago by New York City high school students attending the City University of New York.

Not only was this narrow study a scientifically invalid way to establish statewide benchmarks, NYSUT noted there are no published peer-reviewed studies to support the findings that the ELA and math Regents exams are reliable indicators of college readiness.

Based on this very limited study, the Board of Regents accepted a workgroup's findings that the aspirational scores of 75 on the English Language Arts Regents and 80 on the math Regents exams should be used as a proxy measure for college readiness. Both the ELA and math exams have since been scrapped and redesigned, the white paper noted.

"New York's unique and inappropriately high college and career benchmarks serve to create a false narrative of failure about New York's students and schools," the RA resolution says. "Standards are necessary but inappropriate standards can be abusive."

NYSUT's 36-page white paper concludes, "The failures of Common Core implementation — lack of parent and teacher input, lack of resources, rushed roll-out, top-down decision-making and one-size-fits-all edicts — must be reversed. We call for high New York State standards of college, career and civic readiness based on input from parents, educators, employers and higher education faculty. Our students deserve no less."

NYSUT's work on this resolution has led to a positive response from SED, Fortino said. Both the Regents and SED are under new leadership. New benchmarks are expected to be set with the new assessments being designed by the state's new testing vendor.

For more info

To design appropriate college and career readiness benchmarks, NYSUT recommends state policymakers gather broad input from parents, educators, employers and higher education faculty. For more information, including what other states are doing, download NYSUT's 36-page white paper at www.nysut.org/benchmarks.