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Each spring, I write a letter to the families of students who are in grades 3-8 about the upcoming New York State math and English Language Arts (ELA) assessments. In addition to that, this year I need to share some other news about the status of the district, as it relates to these assessments.
Before I get to that, let’s talk about some changes that were just made by the New York State Education Department (NYSED). There were a few reasons that I consistently heard about why people were upset with the NYS math and ELA assessments, which led to a high rate of parental refusals. First, and most significant, was a belief that these tests should not be used to evaluate teachers. Second, parents felt like the tests were too long. Last, and one of my pet peeves, was the timed nature of the tests which put more than “normal” pressure on students, who weren’t able to use some of the most effective strategies that they learned from their teachers. There is good news this spring when it comes to all of those issues. These assessments will not be used in the evaluation of teachers as they had been in the past. Also, the assessments themselves have been shortened and students will be given the time they need to finish the tests, which should significantly reduce the feeling of pressure that some students had. Please see the handout attached to this letter that further describes some of these changes.
That is the good news, now for the bad news. I need to inform you that the Newark Central School District has been designated as a Focus District by NYSED based on the results of the math and ELA assessments given to students in grades 3-8 from the 2014-15 school year.
Within the educational accountability system in New York, schools can earn various designations. A school identified as not performing up to standards, is called a LAP school and needs to complete and post a Local Assistance Plan (LAP). Based on prior years’ designations, you can find LAPs for Lincoln, Perkins, Kelley and the Middle School on our website. This year, the level of concern has been raised because while being a LAP school is not good, being a Focus District with Focus Schools is worse. In fact, the only lower designation in NYS is being a Priority School. Each level of designation brings increased scrutiny from NYSED and a potential for less local control over instructional and financial decisions.
In the past, schools were only labeled Focus Districts based on multiple years with low performance data. This changed with the passage of a new federal law that replaced the rules we have been playing under since No Child Left Behind was signed by President George W. Bush. The new law is called the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and it removes some federal requirements and allows states to reboot their accountability process, which gives more local control. I was initially optimistic that an increase in local control would be good for Newark. However, instead of continuing the old system or waiting for a new round of state assessments to be given this spring with the modifications that the new Commissioner and Board of Regents put into place, the state elected to change how they identify Focus Districts. If you are interested in more details, please see the addendum at the end of this letter.
When I first received the news in January of this year, I was angry. I went through all the lists of reasons why this is not fair. I thought about how our parental refusals or “opt-outs” were too high to justify this designation. When roughly 26% of your students do not take the ELA assessment and about 33% don’t take the math assessment, the accountability numbers cannot be a true representation of our district.
Also, I’m frustrated that our new strategic planning process is just underway and the curriculum and instructional changes we are making have not had a chance to take root yet. I’m upset that the positive cultural shifts that we are seeing are still developing and growing. I ran through a litany of excuses and even used most of them in my appeal to NYSED.
Then I realized something. This is a reflection of who we are right now, because this is how we performed. If we want to blame the opt-outs, we can go ahead – but we all played a part in creating the environment in which these decisions were made. Every other district in NYS had the same statewide conditions but this is how it played out in Newark. If we want to blame the math and ELA modules, go ahead – but we are all accountable to the same standards throughout NYS and most every other district has decided to make the modules work and apparently, are doing it better than we are. If we want to blame our socioeconomic base, go ahead – but there are poorer schools than us that are outperforming us. I don’t like our accountability results – but they are a reflection of who we are at this point in time and making excuses isn’t going to cut it.
I’m sympathetic to what you might be feeling as a parent or community member right now; remember, I had a month with this data before I was allowed to release it to you and I’m still angry. However, I’m choosing to use my anger as motivation to fix this. I’m more determined than ever that we need to take stock of our program and keep the things that are working and change the things that are not. We are not going to make rash, wholesale changes just because of this designation – but we are going to make changes. I believe the course we have been charting together is the right one, for the right reasons. We will continue to work through a process and use data, logic and our best instincts to make the right educational, school culture and community-based decisions for our staff, parents, taxpayers and most importantly our students. The vision we created together is the right one – this designation will not distract me from that vision, rather it provides me with an increased sense of urgency to get there.
Newark Central School District is the centerpiece of our community that binds students, staff, families and neighbors through a profound sense of hometown pride. We engage all students with the diverse opportunities and academic experiences they need to reach their maximum potential. Our students thrive in an environment of high expectations, collaboration and respect. Effective communication and sustained connections foster a sense of importance, contributing to the success of every student every day.
Given these changes and our status as a Focus District, I’m asking for all parents to have their students take the grades 3-8 math and ELA assessments this spring! Over the past couple of years, I’ve outlined why I think it’s helpful and important for us to have the results that come from these tests. If you were a parent who previously had your child refuse to take these assessments, I hope that you reconsider that decision for this year! Last, I encourage you to reach out to me, or your building principal, if you have questions about any of this – and most importantly, to thank you for your ongoing support of the educational system at Newark CSD.
Matt Cook, Superintendent of Schools