testing testing

An uphill climb toward online testing awaits New York schools

Political and logistical impediments could thwart New York’s participation in a multi-state consortium formed to improve the quality of standardized tests.

When New York adopted the Common Core learning standards in 2010, education officials also committed to participating in a federally funded consortium that would produce a computer-based assessment system tied to the standards.

The computer-based testing would allow tests finally to require the kinds of critical thinking that the Common Core asks students to do, advocates say. In the online tests dreamed up by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, screens replace bubble sheets, students type their essays, and math problems are solved by dragging and dropping answers. Expedited grading would return results to schools in weeks, offering teachers valuable feedback before the end of the year.

State officials have long signaled an intention to shift to the PARCC tests once they become available in the 2014-2015 school year. But they still have not formally committed to that plan, and State Education Commissioner John King suggested last week, in the wake of the state’s first round of Common Core-aligned tests, that the urgency had passed.

“I suspect that we will perhaps move more slowly than some other states since we know that we have in place very high-quality Common Core assessments,” King said.

New York’s uncertain participation in PARCC is significant because it was one of 11 founding states to originally lead the consortium, which is touted as a necessary step to devise a high-quality national assessment that accurately measures college and career readiness. Though the core governing members remain, several states have dropped out or switched over to a rival consortium, Smarter Balanced Assessments, that is developing its own set of online assessments.

One reason cited for the exits are higher-than-expected costs. But anti-Common Core legislative efforts launched by conservative groups have also driven states to reconsider using shared tests.

Both issues are factors in New York.

Weighing heavily on the minds of state education officials is PARCC’s price tag. It will cost nearly $30 per student to administer the PARCC assessments each year, the consortium estimated in July. That would require the state to more than quadruple its spending on standardized tests for elementary and middle school grades, an investment that testing advocates say pales in comparison to how money is spent elsewhere in the system. New York spends about $18,000 on education annually for each student in public schools, but only $7 of that goes to the state’s testing program.

“We’re really asking about less than the cost of a text book,” said Matthew Chingos, a researcher who has studied testing costs.

The spending hike would come at a time when the political climate around the implementation of many of the state’s education reforms is tense. Conservative lawmakers, citing growing implementation costs, are trying to pull out of the Common Core altogether, while hearings are being scheduled to scrutinize the State Education Department’s reform policies.

For now, New York is moving forward with a PARCC field testing pilot this year, and officials say that they still hope to eventually adopt the online tests.

But administering online tests would also require significant technology upgrades in schools. Schools would need to be equipped with computers and expanded wireless bandwidth to allow many students to take online tests at the same time.

A one-time windfall of technology funding will soon be available to needy schools to subsidize the costs of upgrading their infrastructure. But that might not be enough to prepare schools in less than two years.

“This is a huge undertaking,” United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said of the ambitious timeline. “There’s no way we would be ready for this.”

King hinted at the issue last week, saying he’d make a decision “based on our sense of technological capacity across districts and readiness to shift to online assessment.”

Despite the uncertainty, preparations to make the transition are underway. In New York City, principals this month are being asked to inventory the technology at their schools to figure out what they would need to administer online tests. About 1,300 city schools are eligible to receive $51 million from a $87 million settlement with Microsoft to buy new computers and software in preparation for online testing.

Schools are also being recruited to participate in this year’s PARCC pilot, which would include field testing questions and training staff to proctor the new kind of test. Last year, seven New York City schools participated in a smaller pilot, city officials said.

Schools are learning of the requirements this summer. At a technology summit that the city hosted last month at Murry Bergtraum High School in lower Manhattan, more than a dozen administrators, teachers, and testing directors sat in on a session to hear Department of Education officials tell them about the work around online assessments.

Toward the end of their presentation, the officials mentioned another potential barrier standing in the way of schools’ ability to adopt the online assessments. Nearly two-thirds of teachers feel uncomfortable using online tools in their classroom and three quarters don’t feel prepared for online testing, according to a state survey taken last year.

Even so, city officials signaled that they hope the state moves forward with the PARCC tests. Department of Education Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky said last week that this year’s tests were a “first step” toward stronger assessments but were “not as strong as what we’re likely to see two years from now.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”