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School’s Out and Session’s Out – What Happened this Year?

The 2022-23 school year and legislative session have come to a close—what happened? The following summary outlines key legislative changes affecting education in New York.  

New York ranks #1 in spending. 

For another consecutive year, New York ranks #1 in the nation when it comes to spending on education. The state’s per-student spending, which rose to $26,571 in 2021, was 85 percent above the national average of $14,347 per-pupil, 17 percent higher than Connecticut, 20 percent higher than New Jersey and 30 percent higher than Massachusetts. 

This year’s executive budget boosted state aid to more than $34 billion. School aid has risen 76 percent since 2012 — while public school enrollment has fallen more than 5 percent during the same period. The state will be spending about $9 billion more on a smaller number of students than it would have if school aid had simply kept pace with inflation. 

The budget provided enough money to ‘fully fund‘ the foundation aid formula, which lawmakers touted as a major accomplishment. However, the formula is based on outdated population statistics from the 2000 census, not accurately tied to yearly enrollment figures, and still provides more than enough funding to high-revenue districts while short-changing impoverished schools. A proposal to commission a one-million-dollar study to investigate the state’s funding formula did not make it through final budget negotiations.  

Student achievement is the lowest in history. 

Student achievement is declining on both state and national measures. New York scored below the national public average in multiple categories on the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) last year. The state ranks 46th in the nation for 4th grade math and has demonstrated “no meaningful improvement” in 4th or 8th grade reading or math for over a decade. 

This year, less than half of students scored proficient on our state’s own grade 3-8 assessments, with some districts scoring at 0% proficiency for entire grade levels in certain subjects. Only 38.6% of students scored proficient in math, while 46.6% of students scored proficient in ELA. Results for high-need students were even worse: only 15.5% of students with learning differences and 13.4% of English language learners scored proficient in ELA; 13.1% and 14.8% respectively, in math. The last time New York managed to achieve a proficiency rate above 50% in either subject was school year 2011-12.  

Rates of chronic absenteeism are on the rise, especially in New York City, where nearly half of all students missed 18 or more days of school last year. Meanwhile, some high schools were being encouraged to pass students who were both chronically absent and failing their coursework. When confronted with pandemic learning loss, the Board of Regents created an emergency appeals process to grant diplomas to students without a passing score on their Regents exams—all the while, increasing numbers of CUNY freshman were already in need of remedial classes. This is not a new phenomenon. State education department may have been failing to meaningfully and reliably measure student proficiency for a decade or more. 

Solution? Lower standards and undermine measurement. 

With plans to overhaul the state’s academic standards by 2025, the Board of Regents and their Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) began the process this year by lowering the bar for student achievement. Behind closed doors, the TAC and Board of Regents will engage in the process of adjusting cut-scores on state assessments (the point at which a student is deemed proficient) to better reflect a “new normal.” What is their idea of a new normal? Test scores from school year 2021-22. 

These were, of course, the pandemic years, in which both test participation rates and scores were the lowest in the state’s history. The public was told repeatedly that scores from that year were not an accurate representation of how students and schools were doing. Now, officials are using those scores as the basis for adjusting standards without explaining what methodology or data will inform this process. The public is left to wait and see where exactly New York’s new definition of “proficient” will land. 

Meanwhile, schools across the state have already begun experimenting with new ways to test students’ knowledge; things like projects, presentations, portfolios, etc., rather than traditional, skills-based exams. All of which represent a departure from objective measures of foundational skills, and a move towards more subjective measures of “21st century,” or “soft” skills. This comes at a time when over half of New York’s students are struggling with the basics: literacy and numeracy.  

NYC faces the reality of a class-size mandate. 

Last September, Governor Hochul signed into law a class size bill requiring all NYC schools to reduce their teacher-pupil ratio over the next five years. This will require an estimated $1.3 billion annually in staffing costs alone, not to mention the financial and logistical burden of finding more physical space to house more classrooms.  

Interestingly, many classes in NYC are already at or below the limit imposed by this bill, according to the class size reduction plan document provided by NYC Department of Education. In fact, it shows that the most impoverished districts (with the highest percentages of black and brown students) have smaller class sizes, overall, while wealthier districts (with the highest percentages of white students) have larger class sizes. To put it in perspective, the borough of the Bronx has the highest rate of compliance with the class size cap—meaning, smaller classes, or more classes within the limit—but also some of NYC’s lowest performing districts and schools.  

This presents two problems. First, it raises doubt that smaller class sizes alone will do much to improve quality. Second, the policy might result in allocating resources to higher-performing schools simply because they are out of compliance with an arbitrary limit. Even Michael Mulgrew, President of the United Federation of Teachers, criticized this bill for lack of a “real plan.” 

…and catches up on phonics instruction for early literacy.  

To boost poor literacy rates in NYC, Mayor Eric Adams mandated that K-3 reading curriculum be rooted “the science of literacy,” rather than the trendy, but unsuccessful, “whole-language” approach that took hold in the mid-2000s (and is still in play at many schools around the state).  

The whole-language approach emphasizes a contextual understanding of words rather than a literal understanding of the relationship between letters, sounds and, eventually, words (otherwise known as phonics—a critical step in mastering early-literacy skills). This approach has come under scrutiny in recent years for creating shortcuts in reading instruction that led to students memorizing words based on context, rather than relying on the phonetic awareness required to decode any unknown word. 

Phonics instruction lends itself better to traditional, teacher-lead learning, as well as modern, adaptable assessments with diagnostic capabilities and immediate scoring. This allows teachers to identify knowledge gaps and potential learning differences, English language needs, etc. to ensure every student is reading on-level before moving on to the next grade. Over 31 states and the District of Columbia have mandated phonics instruction for early literacy in the past decade.  

Charter schools secured a small win, but still NY lags on school choice.  

In this year’s executive budget, Governor Hochul proposed lifting the regional cap on New York City’s charter schools to open more seats for more students. After a battle with lawmakers resisting charter sector growth, they still managed to secure a small win: 22 unused charters are now up for reissue statewide—14 in NYC. However, they faced hostility to get there, and their future remains uncertain. Charters in the state still operate with less funding per-pupil and no access to state-run programs like career and technical education services like P-tech, or trauma-informed mitigation programs like My Brothers Keeper.  

National studies prove that charter schools have the ability to improve outcomes across the country, especially for marginalized students. New York’s charters are no different. SUNY-authorized schools achieve student outcomes above their home district averages, and largely enroll economically disadvantaged students and students of color. Lawmakers in this state spend more time looking to snipe at charters than learn from them. Meanwhile, they are the only tuition-free alternative for families in New York who want something different from what their district school offers. 

Families of students with learning differences who are not receiving an adequate education from their district school must pay out of pocket to cover tuition elsewhere, then attempt to sue the state for reimbursement. New York has only two, limited tax credit scholarships, no voucher program for students with special needs or low-income families, nor any other formal system in which education dollars can be redirected to a school of the family’s choice. Students cannot choose among public schools, and students from nonregistered schools face barriers to receiving a diploma at all. 

Seven states now have universal or near-universal school choice, with dozens more providing vouchers and scholarships for their highest-need families to choose a school that best meets their needs.  As things stand, New Yorkers with resources can exercise their choices by moving to high-performing school districts or paying out of pocket for private-school tuition or tutoring. A fairer education system would give all families a real opportunity to pick the best school for their child.  

How will other states be starting their school year?  

Massachusetts and Virginia plan to raise the cut scores on their state assessments over the next ten years. Colorado and North Carolina have legislated statewide literacy goals for all students to be reading on level by 3rd grade, as measured by both internal and external assessment. Thirty-one states have already begun to pass the benefits of phonics instruction to their students.  

California invested in a modernized and comprehensive system of assessment and reporting, with a user-friendly dashboard for parents and the public. Washington, D.C. and Mississippi were the only states not to plummet on the NAEP during pandemic, which Mississippi credits to early literacy, research-backed teacher training and a clearer school rating system.  

Many states have invested in computerized, adaptable, diagnostic assessments, which identify knowledge gaps, learning differences, and English language needs before it’s too late. Assessments of this nature can be scored immediately and transparently for teachers and parents, and often adhere to a continuous measurement strategy for student achievement, meaning it intentionally does not change over time. 40 states currently benefit from capturing and analyzing high-quality student data in a statewide longitudinal data system, informed by population, workforce and other statistics, to meaningfully measure student outcomes, provide relevant career development opportunities, and ensure transparency and accountability.  

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