Wednesday, May 6, 2015

A Quick Look at the Nolan-Flanagan Bill

The heads of the Assembly and Senate Committees on Education have cooperated on a bill to amend education law. It's nice that they're on the same page, but it seems unlikely that the bill will satisfy the stakeholders it strives to address. It is worth remembering that we have only an acting commissioner of education at this time, although a new one is imminent—Elizabeth Berlin and Ken Wagner are working together in that capacity—so some of the authority of that office is missing. BTW, a propos of nothing, State Ed has a beautiful new website. The old one was horrendous.

The bill gives the commissioner until June 30, a little less than eight weeks from today, to come up with a new draft plan for APPR, the evaluation process for teachers. Then there is a period for public comment, and within 45 days, the plan must be approved. From that date, which I read as being as late as mid-August, school districts have until December 15 to produce their own plans and have them approved by the commissioner.

That's a lot of plans—719, I believe. The bill may well be a jobs plan as well as an ed reform plan, because I suspect the commissioner will have to hire a boatload of reviewers to get those plans read and approved by the due date.

Included in the bill is the plan to have the commissioner release a certain percentage of ELA/Math questions from the most recent test, with answers, by June 1. I don't know what kind of contract NYS has with Pearson, but I guess they'd better hop to and figure something out, including how many questions it would take not to impact the "validity and/or reliability of future examinations." The sum of $8.4 million is provided, presumably to pay for new questions to replace those being revealed to the public.

I have a question about that provision. First, items have been released in the past, usually in the summer. (From a 2014 State Ed release: "In 2013, 25% of the actual test questions were released in the summer.  This summer, we plan to release significantly more questions from the 2014 tests.") Releasing items in the current school year only makes sense if scoring is available, so that teachers can use the questions and scores to do some kind of analysis. Will scores be available June 1? If not, is this helpful at all?

Teacher evaluation based on tests is now supposed to take into account "CERTAIN STUDENT CHARACTERISTICS, AS DETERMINED BY THE COMMISSIONER, INCLUDING BUT NOT LIMITED TO STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES, POVERTY, ENGLISH LANGUAGE LEARNER STATUS AND PRIOR ACADEMIC HISTORY." I look forward to seeing how that change is woven in. It does address the fairness issue, but it lends itself to a certain student-scoring system that could be seriously offensive if not dealt with very carefully.

Then we get a new review system for the 3-8 tests, which begs the question: Was no one in the state looking at those tests till now? Or perhaps no teachers were looking at them? I know that teachers reviewed tests in the past and often helped to write Regents questions. So what was the process in the past couple of years? Anyway, it certainly makes sense to have such a review process, as it makes sense to have a review process of the standards themselves, which is another provision of the bill. State standards were always reviewed and updated with some regularity, and there was an attempt made to ensure that districts were implementing those standards. NYS Ed people were on the feedback teams for the new standards, but there's always room for more review.

As for "reforms in the selection of Regents," other than a change to a date and the removal of a lot of "if...then" language, I don't see anything that really addresses anyone's concerns about that body. Maybe someone can explain that one to me.

So what I see is this: We still have annual tests, although a committee may now review them before they are given and ordinary people may look at them afterward (I believe the latter was always true). We still have APPR that contains some percentage of student progress on standardized testing as a means of evaluating teachers, although now we can add points for disabilities, poverty, ELL status, and "prior academic history," whatever that might mean, and ordinary folks can submit ideas or look at the commissioner's plan briefly before it gets implemented. We still have a Board of Regents that is still elected by the legislature. We still have CCLS, although now "stakeholders" may review them from time to time. Is this enough to satisfy those various stakeholders—parents, teachers, administrators, students? Stay tuned.

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