For the past two years, the New York State Education Department (NYSED) has required schools to make a number of significant changes in an effort to improve the quality and equality of education across the state. Collectively, these changes are known as the Regents Reform Agenda. They include a new set of state standards for ELA and math, corresponding changes to the grades 3 through 8 and Regents testing system, new requirements for professional evaluations (APPR), and changes to the way student performance data is viewed and organized.
At BH-BL, we have worked diligently to understand all aspects of the Regents Reform Agenda. We have questioned, examined, and sought clarification on the new mandates. We have taken multiple opportunities to explain them to the public. We have insisted that they be incorporated into our educational program in a way that best suits our students and staff, and without losing sight of our priorities as educators. For instance:
Despite the many changes required of us, we want to assure our community that the priority of the BH-BL Central School District always has been, and will continue to be, a high-quality, well-rounded education in a caring and nurturing environment, preparing our students to reach their highest potential in their adult lives.
Because there have been so many state mandates thrust upon schools in such a short time, we feel it is important to clarify our position on three of the major aspects of the Regents Reform Agenda: Common Core Learning Standards, Testing, and the Collection and Use of Student Data.
It is the job of NYSED to establish standards that schools throughout the state must meet. Much like the grid on a football field or mile markers on a highway that act as guides, these standards provide guidance regarding a student’s progress toward the goal of college and career readiness. The Board of Regents has adopted a national document called the Common Core Learning Standards to serve as the basis for the state’s new standards in ELA and math. These standards have been further enriched by standards unique to New York State. They are different than previous NYS standards. They stress depth of understanding over breadth of coverage. They look for rapid fluency with basic math calculations. They value application of math concepts to real-world situations. They emphasize literacy across all subject areas. They encourage the reading of complex informational text and they expect that students will use evidence from text to inform or make an argument.
The new standards have much in common with our own 21st Century Framework for Learning, a document that was created through an extensive shared-decision making process and first published in 2010. Our Framework for Learning defines skills that are critical for student success in school, post-secondary education, work, and life. The Framework does not define lessons or curriculum, but rather points out important skills and themes that should be included in good lessons. Across our district we see innovative and exciting curricula that support attainment of these skills.
In the same way, the new CCLS set a benchmark for student learning. They do not tell our teachers how to teach, nor do they take away our control over classroom materials, teaching methods and experiences we provide for our students. As a school district, we value the ideas the common core approach brings to teaching and learning. However, we insist that we maintain complete local control over the curriculum itself. To return to the football analogy, NYSED sets the yard markers but we design the plays that move us down the field. Furthermore, we are very open and transparent about our curriculum. Any questions about lessons can be directed to a child’s teacher, the building principal or the specific K-12 administrator.
Of course, the new standards require adjustment on the part of students, parents and staff. The standards have changed at each grade level, so students may find the material more difficult. As a result, we offer support services to help students when they struggle. We are also exploring ways to support parents as they assist their children at home. We will continue to provide our teachers with in-depth professional development as they work within the new system. We support the recommendations of the New York State Senate Standing Committee on Education that calls for increased support for professional development in designing curricula that supports these new standards.
NYSED rolled out these new standards very quickly. Along with parents, teachers, and legislators we, too, are frustrated they did not implement the new standards in a more measured and strategic manner. As a district we have expressed our concerns about this to Commissioner King on two different occasions over the past several months.
Our students come to school every day eager to learn, despite all of the political controversy surrounding the CCLS. Our priority is to provide a high-quality, well-rounded education for them in a caring and nurturing environment. While the district has been working hard to make necessary adjustments to accommodate the CCLS, we cannot let arguments about the implementation by NYSED deter us from our primary mission.
Although the new standards have not increased the number of tests our students are required to take, we will continue to keep a watchful eye on the state’s fundamental approach to student testing. We appreciate the fact that state leaders have recently shortened several of the upcoming tests. We are glad they have eliminated duplicate testing for eighth-grade math students enrolled in integrated algebra, as well as stand-alone pilot testing. We are encouraged that the State Education Department (SED) has given us the freedom to eliminate frustrating pre-tests that were required last year as part of the new teacher/principal evaluation system.
We must, however, keep assessments and results in perspective: A test score is just one piece of data we use to evaluate learning. The real measures are how much our students enjoy learning and how well our graduates do once they are beyond our walls. Nonetheless, we will continue to urge SED to evaluate how much time students spend taking tests and the number of tests students (especially in elementary school) are required to take. Additionally, we support the recommendations of the New York State Senate Standing Committee on Education that calls for action in the State Legislature that would:
Schools have collected data on students for many years. It is standard practice. The sharing of student data, however, increased dramatically in 2002 with the passage of the No Child Left Behind act. Since that time, school district data has been shared and analyzed to help identify low-performing schools. And, for the past decade, districts have been required to upload demographic and performance data on students to a NYS data repository, often referred to as the Data Warehouse.
In 2011, Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) regulations were changed to allow state education departments to share personally identifiable student data with third-party organizations, without parental consent, for the purposes of program evaluation and improvement. This means the Data Warehouse information uploaded by schools can be shared by NYSED with third-party organizations. As part of the Regents Reform Agenda, NYSED plans to share personally identifiable information uploaded by school districts to a data platform developed by an organization called InBloom. NYSED believes this data platform will make the data provided by schools more transparent to parents, as well as create a uniform interface for companies seeking to develop software solutions for school districts.
The Board of Education has already reached out to local legislators urging them to enact legislation that affords student data the highest levels of security protections available. Along with many parents throughout the state, we also have reservations about some of the details and student data categories the state is requesting. We feel there are too many unanswered questions about student privacy to be completely comfortable with the new student data requirements. As a result, we fully support the New York State Senate Standing Committee on Education pushing forward a Privacy Bill that would strengthen protections of personal information stored on the statewide data portal; establish significant civil and criminal penalties for unauthorized disclosure of personal information; and create independent oversight within NYSED on matters related to privacy. We also support the committee’s recommendation to delay the transfer of data to InBloom for one year.
In addition to supporting these statewide proposals, we are taking our own measures to protect student data. Our Board of Education is currently reviewing each individual student data field that is uploaded to the Data Warehouse. We also are working on a proposal to designate an existing staff member as an internal Student Data Privacy Officer who would be responsible for reviewing and enforcing privacy guidelines at the local level. This individual would also monitor and report on any new state data requirements before the district submits student data to NYSED.
The changes brought about by the Regents Reform Agenda and their potential implications are taken very seriously at BH-BL. We continue to study these changes and engage in regular discussions about them at the board, district and building levels.
While we are inclined to embrace new initiatives aimed at improving public education, we also know it is necessary to allow for adjustments as change is implemented. In our view, revisions to the Reform Agenda only stand to make us better. To that end, we welcome community feedback. We listen to, reflect upon, and incorporate this feedback as we implement the changes in our own unique Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake way. Similarly, we encourage NYSED leaders to listen to feedback from educators, parents and students regarding all aspects of the Regent’s Reform Agenda. We ask NYSED to be cautious about pushing too much change at once.
We will lobby for the changes outlined above and continue to strive for excellence in all that we do for Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake students.