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Archive for the ‘Testing’ Category

It’s test-prep season but I have hope

  Ms. R is a 4th-grade teacher in the Bronx.

It’s early spring, but instead of feeling lighthearted and happy, I feel stressed and tired.

Test-prep season is in full swing. This annual ritual of feeling intense pressure to prepare my students for state tests and boost their scores nearly drains me of hope.

But one thing gives me strength – my students.

Remembering how much I influence my students puts things in perspective. It reminds me that as a teacher, I’m not as helpless as the drive to raise test scores can sometimes makes me feel.

Last Monday, my principal said something like this: “If we focus on getting 3 percent of our pushables, I don’t care which 3 percent, to score a 3 or 4 on the state tests, we will knock down three quality review domains.”

Just in case you are not fully up on this teacher jargon, “pushables” are those students on the brink of reaching the next level. For example, a student who scored a 2.8 is extremely close to reaching a 3.

But do you see the problem indicated by my principal’s statement? It suggests that we focus on any pushables showing steady progress because doing so may help boost their scores, which in turn will improve our school’s quality review score.

I immediately wondered about my English language learners and my students reading far below grade level. Would I have to pause or minimize my efforts with them in order to focus solely on the “pushables”? The answer can seem to be an ugly yes. I’d have to focus more on those students who demonstrate promising achievement on tests.

No, my principal is not a jerk. His statement is the result of the immense pressure placed on administrators and teachers based on unreasonable criteria that force us to treat students as commodities.

Who is putting all of this pressure on us? What credentials do they have as educators? Why does our education system revolve around standardized exams? If our school does well on those quality review domains, what have we really accomplished? Clearly the quality review influences decision-making and the behavior and attitude of the staff. But does the feedback of the reviewers realistically even qualify as valuable insight?

I ranted about all of this to my mentor. His response was: “When you shut that door, it’s just you and the kids. You know what they need and what’s best. Shut your door and do it.”

Teachers are on the front lines with our students. We have say over what the way we teach in our classrooms. Standardized exams and other killjoy practices in education are obstacles that can be overcome through strategic practices.

Our students open themselves in order to learn from us. For their sake, we do our best to make the state tests as painless as possible and to make learning as enjoyable as possible. Yes, we struggle sometimes with this system. But it helps to remember that we matter to our students and we work for them.

Our classrooms have doors. Sometimes by closing a door I am able to open minds.

With student test scores, even a little income means a lot: UFT analysis

The link between poverty and academic achievement, particularly in terms of test scores, has long been established.  SAT scores closely track family income.  The difference between poor students (those qualified for free or reduced-price lunch) and those from better-off families is clear in all kinds of test reports, from state exams to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the “gold-standard” of national testing.

But what has gotten less attention is the very strong difference in test score achievement within the subsidized lunch category.

On both national and local levels, children from families eligible for reduced-price lunch – while they score significantly lower than more middle-class students – also score significantly higher than children in the free-lunch category.

In fact, in New York City higher numbers of reduced-price-lunch students in their overall poverty cohort can mean a significant increase in a school’s average reading proficiency – so any analysis that attempts to compare school results has to take this issue into account.

How the categories are determined

Federal guidelines specify that a family of four can have a maximum annual income of $23,850 to qualify for free lunch.  The maximum income for reduced-price lunch eligibility is nearly twice as much, $44,123.

Families in New York City whose income is so low that they qualify for free lunch usually are led by parents who have very low-wage jobs, are on public assistance, or struggling with medical problems that keep them from full-time work.

Families whose income qualifies them for reduced price lunch generally have one or two working adults with jobs that separately or combined pay roughly $20 an hour.  A survey by NAEP found that such families were characterized by higher levels of education than parents in free-lunch families, more books and access to computers, and other factors linked to educational success.

NAEP and state test results

On NAEP 4th grade reading tests for 2013, for instance, the national average scale score for students from middle and upper-class families is 236; students eligible for reduced-price lunch had an average scale score of 220, 16 points less;  but students in the free lunch category scored only 206, 14 points less than children eligible for reduced-price meals, and 30 points less than middle-class students.

On New York City NAEP, the 4th grade reading pattern is very similar, though the gaps are a little more narrow – average scale score for non-eligible students — 235;  reduced price students – 223;  free lunch – 210.


The same pattern holds true looking at NAEP 2013 results through the lens of proficiency rather than scale scores.  In New York City, nearly half the students from families making more than $44,000 were judged proficient or advanced;  in the reduced-price category about one-third were proficient or advanced;  in the free-lunch segment, only about one-fifth of students managed to get over the proficiency bar.


Effect on school results

The average poverty index (free and reduced-price combined) for New York City’s elementary and middle schools is 70 percent.  Reduced-price lunch students make a small portion of the total – 7 percent – but because their scores are on average significantly higher than free-lunch kids, their presence can have an outsize effect.

Looking at 1,250 elementary and middle schools, we did an analysis to try to find out what happens when – holding the overall poverty index (free-and reduced/price students combined) steady – the number of reduced-price lunch students in this total goes up (and obviously the percentage of free-lunch students goes down).

The following chart shows that – other factors being equal – if reduced-price lunch students in a school make up 2 percent of its entire poverty cohort, overall school results on reading will be 1.5 percentage points higher than if the school had only students who were eligible for free lunch.

As the percentage of reduced-price lunch children in an overall poverty cohort rises, so do overall school scores.  In fact, if about one in seven of a school’s poor students (14 percent) is eligible for reduced-price rather than free lunch, overall school scores will be more than 10 percentage points higher than they would be if all the school’s poor students were in the lower income category of free-lunch.

Even in high poverty schools table

A prism for examining proficiency

As an illustration, let’s take two apparently similar schools – call them PS 999 and PS 888 – each with about 600 students, each with 75% of the student body eligible for free or reduced price lunch.  But PS 999 has an average proficiency score on the New York State reading test of 34 percent, while PS 888 is at 27 percent.

It might look like PS 999 is doing a better job, but not necessarily.

Each school would have about 450 of its 600 students eligible for free or reduced price lunch, but let’s assume for the sake of discussion that in PS 999 there are 395 free-lunch kids and 54 reduced-price students (12 percent of its poverty total).

PS 888 on the other hand, has only free-lunch eligible kids. (This is not an extreme example.  Dozens of New York City elementary and middle schools fall into this category).

The analysis above shows that PS 888, though it is seven percentage points in overall proficiency below PS 999, may be doing a slightly better job, since the larger number of reduced-price lunch students at PS 999 should produce a nine-point gap between the two, rather than a seven-point gap.


In isolating the effect of reduced-price-lunch students, this report does not attempt to deal with the many other issues in schools that have an effect on student outcomes, including the number of English language learners and the number and degrees of need of special education students.  All these factors also play a role.

But any thoughtful analysis of public school results is incomplete without an examination of each school’s poverty cohort, making it even more important that the city and state break out these categories of poverty when reporting school results, particularly for those schools – either public or charter – that make extravagant claims about their success with poor students.


A teacher who loves tests — but not the ELA

“I love tests,” declares Leah Brunski, a 3rd-grade teacher at PS 29 in Brooklyn. “They help me do a better job teaching. They show me what’s going well and what’s not, which kids are learning concepts and mastering skills and which ones aren’t. They even show me whether or not I’m being effective as a teacher.”

But even Brunski — who’s in her 10th year of teaching — couldn’t stomach the state’s English language arts exam, which she calls “developmentally inappropriate.”

Jean Piaget, one of the godfathers of cognitive development, is likely rolling in his grave knowing that New York is asking kids equipped with 45-minute attention spans to focus for almost twice that amount of time. It felt cruel to ask students to go back and check their work after the 60+ minutes many had already spent reading and then re-reading passages, writing and revising their responses.

In an op-ed in the Daily News titled “Why state exams fail my test,” Brunski highlights the length (240 minutes over three days) and complexity of this year’s ELA. The veteran teacher, who frequently uses her own assessments to shape her lessons, also notes that teachers and students don’t receive the results of the exams until students have already moved on to the next grade — too late to inform instruction.

“[The test] may as well have disappeared into thin air the day my students were done with it,” Brunski concludes.

Read the full op-ed here.

Trial Urban Districts Assessment: What the results could show

This backgrounder by the UFT Research Dept. was recently released to reporters. The Trial Urban Districts Assessment results for the big U.S. cities will be published on Wednesday, Dec. 18. They come out every two years and break out the performance of large U.S. cities on National Assessment of Educational Progress tests. We review results from 2003 to 2011 and include statewide results for 2013, which came out in November. TUDA scores show New York City’s performance stagnating since 2009 while other cities showed growth. They suggest the limitations of a test-driven system pegged to mediocre assessments.

TUDA results for New York City will be exceptionally important this year.  While Mayor Bloomberg has highlighted selected indicators of improvement during his tenure, the Trial Urban District Assessment results will be a final, objective assessment of student progress during the Bloomberg years. They will also allow us to measure New York City against other major urban districts, including Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, DC, Houston, Atlanta, and a large-U.S. cities average.

What TUDA results have showed so far — and 2011 was the last time they were updated — is that New York City’s 4th- and 8th-graders have improved in 4th grade math and reading and 8th grade math, but not as much as their peers in other major cities. On 8th-grade reading between 2003 and 2011, the city showed an especially disturbing trend of no improvement. New York used to lead among urban districts. But city scores have moved towards the middle of the pack of major urban school systems over the past decade.

NAEP/TUDA — The “Gold Standard”

Our state tests underwent three major overhauls between 2003 and 2013, but the National Assessment of Education Progress from which the TUDA scores are drawn remained unchanged. This is why they are often referred to as a “gold standard,” by providing a reliable, clearly comparable look at student progress over time.

NAEP tests representative samples of 4th- and 8th-grade students in math and reading every two years. State by state results have been published by the U.S. Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics since 1992. In the last decade, results have been made available for individual urban districts as TUDA.

The TUDA cities include 21 major urban districts, such as Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles and Houston. The report also includes a large-city average of all U.S. cities with a population of 250,000 or more. The average provides a quick, valuable way to compare NYC students to their big-city peers nationwide.

The 2013 state NAEP results came out on Nov. 6. New York State (which includes New York City) went up a small amount, two points on a 500-point scale, in 4th-grade math and reading and 8th-grade math; 8th-grade reading results were flat. Since New York City students make up one-third or more of the total state, the city’s TUDA results should more or less track the state results.

Math – Recovery Needed

Fourth Grade Math

Between 2003 and 2007, New York City’s 4th-graders gained 10 scale-score points, equivalent to about a year’s worth of learning, in math. But then progress stalled. Fourth graders actually lost three scale-score points between 2009 and 2011. Statewide over this same time period, 4th-graders lost a similar 3 points. Meanwhile, the overall national average continued to rise, as did the average for large-city districts.

New York State 4th-graders recovered some of their losses on the 2013 NAEP tests published in November, though they have still not returned to their 2007 high. All things being equal, we expect the city’s 4th-graders to recover a similar two points.

Compared with the large city average, NYC’s 4th-graders made less progress in math from 2003 to 2011. Gains were also greater in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Washington, DC, Houston and San Diego.

Eighth Grade Math

In 2003, NYC 8th-graders outscored the large-city average by four points. But by 2011 the lines had crossed, with the city’s 8th-graders actually backsliding and performing slightly below the large-city average.

This year’s 2013 NAEP score for New York State showed a two-point recovery, and we hope for the same uptick for the city. However, other large cities did not slip in 2011 and have showed greater gains over the last eight years, so it could be that NYC’s former advantage over other urban districts has been erased.

Every large city but one has improved more in 8th-grade math than New York since 2003. New York’s six-point gain is thoroughly eclipsed by a large-city average gain of 12 points, while comparable cities such as Chicago and Los Angeles have gained 16 points, Atlanta has gained 22, and Boston 20 points.

 Math Proficiency

NAEP scores are also reported by percentages of students at “basic,” “proficient,” and “advanced.”

In math, 33 percent of New York City’s 4th-graders scored at proficient or advanced in 2011. Between 2003 and 2011, the share of proficient or advanced students rose by 11 percentage points, about the middle of the distribution, with Boston a clear leader (up 20 points to 43 percent proficient).

For 8th-grade math, 24 percent of New York City’s students scored proficient or advanced in 2011, below the large-city average of 26 percent. Since 2003, New York 8th-graders at proficient or above has increased by three points, well below the large-city gain of 10 proficiency points.

Comparing NAEP results to New York’s new state tests is more plausible since the state switched to the new Common Core assessments. They are closely pegged to NAEP achievement levels and designed to predict college readiness. On the 2013 state tests, 35 percent of 4th-graders and 26 percent of 8th-graders were at or above the proficient level, just a hair above the TUDA 2011 results (of 33 and 24 percent). This might suggest there will be small gains on TUDA. However, it also shows that fewer than one-third of students are on track for college-level work.

Reading – Trouble In Middle Schools

Fourth Grade Reading

Up through 2009, 4th grade reading scores rose in NYC. Along with their peers in many other urban districts, NYC 4th-graders made good progress. But the city’s scores took a dip in 2011, while large cities on average continued to make gains. The city as of 2011 still hovered five points above the large-city average and should be able to maintain that lead.

This year’s 2013 NAEP score for New York State increased two points, so the city will probably show an increase as well (remember, city students are about one-third of the state population).

New York City’s gains in 4th-grade reading are comparable to most other large cities.

Eighth Grade Reading

Eighth grade reading is another story. New York City scores have been virtually unchanged since 2003, finally inching up two points in 2011, while every other TUDA city but one has made more progress.  The city score dropped below the large-city average in 2011 for the first time.

New York State 8th-grade reading performance has also been flat since 1998. On the 2013 NAEP, 8th-graders again made no gains, which could suggest there will be little gain on the city’s TUDA either.

Other cities have had substantially more success on improving 8th-grade reading.

Reading Proficiency

On the New York State tests for 2013, 27 percent of 4th graders and 25 percent of 8th graders met or exceeded the proficiency cutoffs, compared with 36 percent of city 4th-graders and 26 percent of 8th-graders at or above proficiency on the 2011 TUDA.

 By 8th-grade, students should be proficient readers, well on their way to making inferences, analyzing text and making and supporting judgments. That just 26 percent of the city’s 8th-graders demonstrated such proficiency on TUDA in 2011 means that three-quarters of next year’s incoming freshmen will be no better prepared to succeed in high school than were incoming high school students 10 years ago.

The price of testing

Miss Education is in her second year teaching 4th grade in the Bronx. This year, she’s found herself deeply affected by the challenge of seeing her students struggle with standardized tests.

In early October, I had to administer yet another pre-assessment to my students. I understood that my students were starting to feel frustrated and uncomfortable with all of this pre-testing going on, so I really tried to make it as painless as possible. I explained what had been explained to me. I said, “These tests will not affect your grade; the purpose is to help me, as your teacher, see how much information you know.” I explained that the results of these tests would help me be a better teacher because I’d know what I need to focus on with them.

The test was 90 minutes. It had five constructed response questions — all of which were worded in a way that was more complex than necessary, making the questions confusing and even awkward to read. Nonetheless, my students trusted me, so they accepted the pre-tests with an eager smile and a look of consent.

Ten minutes in, I started to see a lot of worried and insecure faces. After some more time, I heard paper rustling as if someone were madly flipping through the pages of a book. I scanned the classroom and noticed Adam. Adam was flipping through his test aggressively. His face was pale. Next thing I knew, Adam was waving the whole test packet in the air violently.  I nearly ran over to him to intervene.

As soon as I put my hands on his shoulder, Adam stopped waving the paper. “Hey, hey, hey! Relax, relax,” I said. I told him to stop and take a breather, to put his head down and take a break. Tears welled up in his eyes, and he put the paper aside.

Adam is 9 years old.  An unnecessarily stressed 9-year-old. I felt so angry with myself and with the whole system. What are people thinking? Why am I allowing myself to be used as a tool to impose these ridiculous and overwhelming tests on my students for the sake of statistics? I felt extremely guilty and sad about Adam. I wonder how many of those “intellectuals”  who created these tests and these methods have actually had experiences with 9-year-olds.

This whole situation made me question and reassess my role in the classroom.  These tests are not an accurate measure of student intelligence or learning. I know many people feel the same. I just don’t know why our public education officials don’t do anything about it.

What drives the success in Success Academy?

When scores for the first round of Common Core-aligned state tests were released this summer, it wasn’t surprising that the results were lower than in years past. What did come as a surprise, however, was how well students at Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy schools had fared: At one SA charter in the Bronx, 97 percent of students scored proficient in English and 77 percent were proficient in math.

What’s their secret? (If there can be a “secret” to high scores on standardized tests, that is.) A new blog post by education writer Diane Ravitch, in which she quotes an anonymous Success Academy teacher, suggests that the disappointing truth may be old-fashioned test prep, and lots of it, otherwise known as “drill and kill.”

ELA test prep starts in November for two periods a week, the teacher wrote to Ravitch. After winter break, we have daily hourlong ELA test prep. Then we add math. By late February, we spend several hours a day on it. The last few weeks are almost all-day test prep.

So much for the Success Academy mission statement that proclaims, “Our schools are fueled by wonder.”

The same teacher notes that “we have people whose job it is to put together custom test prep packets based on state guidance. Much more aligned to Common Core and closer to the test than the published books I’ve seen. The teacher adds, “Thousands of dollars [is] spent on prizes to incentivize the kids to work hard.”

Custom test prep packets and bribery — is this the way to close the achievement gap?

The anonymous teacher, who says a typical Success Academy work day lasts 11 hours, describes “literally pour[ing] 100 percent of yourself into [test prep] day in and day out.” And just in case teachers are not feeling enough pressure, they receive “daily inspirational emails from principals with a countdown, anecdotes about the importance of state tests, and ever-multiplying plans for ‘getting kids over the finish line’.

And while Success Academy’s test scores were high, so was another statistic: its teacher turnover rate, which at one point approached 40 percent. Could experiences like the one above be the cause?

Read Ravitch’s entire entry here.

Missing Headline: NYC Teachers the Best in State

Here is a headline that was missing in the NYC papers this past week:

NYC Teachers: The Best Teachers in the State. 

 And here is the missing lead to the article.

An analysis of New York State’s growth scores reveals that NYC teachers are twice as likely to be considered Highly Effective compared to teachers in the rest of the state, and about half as likely to be Ineffective.  That analysis is based on the results of the state’s teacher growth model and this year’s new math and reading tests.

And here is the missing sidebar:

2013 Growth Score Results


Percent of Teachers in City

Percent of Teachers in

Rest of State

Highly Effective












True, that story would be based on test scores in ELA and math, grades 4-8.  True  again, the state used its statistical growth model formulas to arrive at those results. And, true a third time,  test scores and growth models can never be the only measure of teacher effectiveness.

But still. When have those limitations ever stopped the press from publishing test-score stories about teachers in the past?

For example, two years ago, it was front-page news when some researchers tied the “quality” of  4th-grade teachers to the marginally increased incomes of their students two decades later. We are talking here about a single study that made a cause and effect link between two events happening 20 years apart, and a salary increase of a few hundred bucks a year. Is that front page news?  Yet there is was, and it got the intended traction, too — trotted out at dozens of forums nationwide as a justification for firing teachers based on their students’ test scores.

That’s not the only example, of course. When schools — and implicitly their teachers — are labeled F’s and D’s based on test scores, the press is happy to carry those stories.

And let’s not even discuss all the eagerness around the value-added TDRs.

But when it comes to news that essentially says “Let’s stop the war on NYC teachers” ?  Nothing made the printed press. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the folks at Gotham Schools, we may never have known.

But to return to the findings on our teachers.  Here is what else the New York Post, or Times, or some other paper could have said:

Only one in 20 teachers in the rest of the state was found to be “highly effective” — but in New York, that number was one in 10 (11%).  And while the rest of the state had more Ineffective teachers than Highly Effective ones, in the city there were three times more Top Teachers than struggling ones according to their scores.  

 NYC math and reading teachers earned those results in spite of the intense challenges that their students often face. More city kids arrive at school learning disabled, poor, and new to the English language.

 These findings are based on a very large data pool of data  (about 40,000 teachers and well over one million kids).  And this is actually the second year that city teachers outperformed the state.  Last year, the differences seemed smaller, but  researchers attribute the widening gap to  improvements in the statistical models, which better capture the results.  

Really, and truly, I do know how scary it can be to validate our existence with any of that.

But in a world that is perfectly willing to debase us through scores — why can’t the world out there extol our virtues, too?

So, congratulations to our teachers, and our schools.  We know that tests can’t begin to capture what you do, and that growth models can’t capture all the challenges we face.  But they do say something — and it bears repeating in a public space.

Test Scores Show Familiar Tale of Two School Systems

A few months ago we did an analysis of the college-readiness numbers of the system’s high-school graduates.  That analysis showed that the system’s college-readiness rate – 22.2% — was largely attributable to a small number of high schools.  The 35 schools that made up the top 10 percent of high schools contributed nearly half of the graduates ready for college, while hundreds of other high schools had college-ready rates in the single digits.

That same pattern – a “tale of two school systems” – is echoed in the results of the recent state tests on grades 3-8 based on the Common Core standards.  In these most recent tests, as in the college-ready statistics, a minority of high-achieving schools helped camouflage much lower results in the majority of schools.

In these new tests based on the much more demanding Common Core standards, only about 26 percent of grade 3-8 students citywide were judged proficient in reading and 30 percent proficient in math, far below the achievement levels on previous state tests.  But even this unimpressive level was not reached by the great majority of elementary and middle schools.  In these schools student achievement was lower – sometimes much lower — than the citywide average.

One quarter of schools produce half to two-thirds of proficient students

Another way to think about this: About 175 elementary schools – out of a total of 600 – educate at least half of the city’s proficient math and ELA students.   Of the city’s roughly 350 middle schools, only 90 account for more than two-thirds of the city’s proficient math and English students.

So a student at one of these schools has – mathematically at least – an excellent chance of passing these tests.  But the opposite is also true.  Students at the remaining hundreds of schools face much larger challenges, particularly at the roughly 275 schools where only 10 percent of children – or fewer — scored proficient in either reading or math.

Same old same old

The Bloomberg administration has consistently reported the numbers in a way that uses an “average” to de-emphasize the problems at hundreds of low-achieving schools.  While the new Common Core tests have changed the definition of proficiency, their results are consistent with the pattern of achievement – and underachievement — for so many New York City schools.

When the city’s 600 elementary schools are ranked into top, second, third and bottom quartiles by their 2013 scores on the Common Core tests, more than 70 percent land in the same quartile they did based on the state tests from 2012.

For the 352 middle schools with two years of math results, 68 percent maintained their rank. Even those that changed ranking generally moved just one quartile: half of those that changed went up one quartile, and 43 percent went down one. Only five schools moved two quartiles up or down.

Common Core tests as a game changer

With this year’s introduction of Common Core-aligned tests, flawed as they were, the city schools enter a new era. The transition will be a game changer that will bring angry reactions by teachers and students, and wider class and racial performance gaps. Student achievement measurement may become discredited for awhile, as an exasperated public throws up its hands in confusion.

Those could be the best things to happen to standardized testing in 10 years.

Achievement plummeted on this first try at new tests. City students scored 20 points lower in ELA and 30 points lower in math, with less than 30 percent of Grade 3-8 students meeting proficiency standards. But the tests set an extremely high bar — probably too high — in what amounted to a premature effort to test students against the new Common Core. Curriculum didn’t start to be available until late in the year and the Dept. of Education didn’t have the leadership required to manage such a dramatic transition.

But there is no going back. The New Common Core tests, which will continue phasing in over the next few years, may get better, especially if current state test-maker Pearson PLC moves out the way. But they will remain harder: they will ask students to do more explaining, analyzing and creating.

And here’s the thing: these are the very skills educators want to teach and have had to forego in favor of test prep. Right now, teachers are out of practice, and so are their students. But these are the skills they want to teach. So they will demand more autonomy, an end to the culture of test prep, more time and resources.  As long as the state and city don’t slap ridiculous consequences onto the new scores, students and teachers alike will become less bored and hopefully more engaged.

Harder tests are going to result in widening gaps between better- and less-prepared students. Typically that means racial and wealth gaps, as well as gaps between English proficient and ELL students and between general and special education kids.

These were the gaps that No Child Left Behind set out to eliminate back in 2002. To the extent this succeeded, and it didn’t much, the cost was relentless test prep and/or dumbing down of tests.  Now, as the gaps widen on the Common Core tests, parents will be outraged and politicians will distance themselves from the schools. So they should. Bringing poorly prepared students up to standards is the work of brilliant and passionate teaching, which has been forced underground in the NCLB era. Its reemergence can come only if good educators are free to work. They cannot be commandeered by mayors running numbers. A next generation teacher force can only be brought into being by experienced educators who are not ruthlessly tracked by narrow performance monitors.  

Accountability and Legacy

The education mayor, the education president. These monikers turned out to be albatrosses around the necks of Michael Bloomberg, George Bush and many others. Their legacy is a culture of measurement, not of learning. Testing has become laden with consequences that the tests themselves were never meant to support, including judgments about schools, teachers, and even “where we are heading as a society.”

One of the best things these new tests could do is force accountability to grow up. The city has overwhelmed us with data that, on close examination, is really the same data points parsed a hundred different ways. What’s more, the numbers appear to lie, or at least, they zing up and down without apparent reason.

Common Core tests could do two things about accountability. The first is to force us to adopt a more rounded assessment of students and schools. The second is to put standardized tests back their rightful, and less overblown, place.

So less than a third of students meet standards. Well, what else do we know? How do students perform on social studies projects, lab work, art and music, sports, leadership activities, group tasks, or community service? What 21st century skills do they have; what ones need to be developed? What are the best models for teaching those skills? What can students tell us about what they do and don’t understand and what helps them learn? And how do we measure those?

There needs to be some opening up — more quantitative data that uses non-numerical measures. We have agreed that more than half of teacher evaluations will be based on observations of classroom performance. Why can’t we assess our students that way?

It would be a relief if tests become more the province of educators. Politicians don’t find scales, cut scores, p values and item analysis inherently sexy. But good measurement requires expert interpretation. If the heat gets turned down under testing, and we all agree it’s complicated, then public attention may return to subjects, to projects, to school activities and to learning.

 Of course, there’s another scenario, in which the new tests are simply misused as the old ones were, to pass judgment based on partial evidence, to bash and shame and to claim undeserved legacies. But after a decade of this, teachers and parents, not to mention students, are pretty fed up. Their voices lend hope for a turnaround.

Fear, Frustration, Failure and State Tests

ScantronThis will be the fourth year that my students and I have suffered through the New York State high-stakes elementary school tests.  Although the mayor and the chancellor tell us this year’s tests are all new, my stories from the classroom are similar to years past.

As a new teacher and New York City transplant, I was astonished to discover 3rd-, 4th- and 5th-grade students were held over based on their scores from a series of limited assessments.  After that realization, I was much less surprised to see the effect of these tests in the classroom.  Both schools I have worked at ended regular instruction in early February to opt for test prep units designed to milk a few extra points on the state exams. Students’ and teachers’ health began to slowly decline around the same time of year, and behavioral incidents began to rise.

In my own classroom, I have fought to ameliorate the stresses of testing season by reminding my students how hard they have worked and telling them that their only job on state testing days is to try their best. But my efforts have been less than successful. One year a 9-year-old 4th grader asked me if it was okay to put the classroom trash can near her desk in case she got sick to her stomach during her English language arts exam.  The next year a mental block caused a little boy to flip his desk over in a moment of panic and frustration while trying to craft an extended-response essay. Just last week, Natashi, a girl in my 5th-grade class who has only been in the country for two years and is still transitioning to English, asked me whether I would be disappointed in her if she tried her best and still wasn’t able to pass. “What if I just need another year in 5th grade to keep practicing, Mr. Thompson?” she said to me with tears in her eyes.

With a broken heart and tears in my own eyes, I turned to Natashi and told her I would always be proud of her. “You have fought so hard this year!  I will be proud of you no matter what score you get!” Natashi feigned a smile and asked to go to the bathroom to wash the tears off her cheeks.

My students, Natashi included, have been attending an extended-day program on Tuesdays and Wednesdays after school all year long. We have spent the last few months keeping students late on Mondays and Fridays for an hour and a half of extra instruction focused on test sophistication.  For the past two months, we have asked students to come to school from 9 a.m. to noon on Saturdays for extra help to boost scores on their state tests.

Still, all the Common Core-aligned data I collect are telling me that my students are not showing mastery on the vast majority of Common Core standards. Many of the “grade level” reading passages and math problems I share with my students are far beyond their ability levels. The confusion these tasks generate leads to an overwhelming sense of failure among my students. And, of course, when my students feel like they are failing, I feel like a failure myself.

Should it surprise any of us that high-stakes tests, coupled with new standards, little-to-no teacher training, and no citywide curricula are a recipe for disaster? Should cheating scandals, state test boycotts, low teacher retention rates, and teary-eyed students come as a shock to the American educational system?  Should I be surprised that my students score 30 percent lower than last year, as predicted by many educational experts? No!

The only surprising part about this whole process is the process itself. We have created a demoralizing atmosphere of fear, frustration and failure for teachers and students. I will always be proud of the hard work my students put into their education, and I sincerely believe they will succeed regardless of what their state test scores suggest. But if the mayor or the chancellor were ever to come up to me like Natashi did to ask whether I was proud of the reforms they had made to education, my answer to them would be quite different from my answer to her.

Mr. Thompson is the pseudonym of a fourth-year elementary school teacher in Brooklyn. A version of this post first appeared on the UFT blog edwize.org, where “New Teacher Diaries” is a regular feature. If you’re interested in writing a New Teacher Diary entry for edwize, send an email to edwize@uft.org.

Getting Past the DOE on the 2012 Test Results

[Editor’s note: This post was authored jointly by Maisie McAdoo and Rhonda Rosenberg.]

Mayor Bloomberg turned the announcement of the 2012 state test results into a promotional event for his “reforms” on Tuesday, despite the fact that an honest appraisal of the scores showed that city students as a group made only modest progress in both math and ELA.  The mayor’s presentation ignored or downplayed results that didn’t fit in with his triumphal narrative, including the fact that the racial achievement gap widened last year in a number of categories.

State officials, by contrast, didn’t even hold a press conference, and said publicly only that the statewide results (which mirrored the city’s) showed “some positive momentum” but left too many students unprepared.

The mayor, however, orchestrated a big press function and handed out a shameless PowerPoint that reported highly selective numbers and featured a comparison of charters and new schools founded during his tenure with “traditional” city schools — i.e. the vast majority of schools in the city system.

But the numbers are there for all to see. “His” charters and new schools combined underperform the average school, in fact (see especially slide 6), and they gained only one to two points more than the “traditional” schools in percentages of students meeting standards in math and less than a percentage point in students meeting standards in English. That, according to the mayor, was conclusive evidence for the success of his reforms. 

Please. If these test scores — and remember this was the testing round where 30 questions had to be disqualified, the same round that included the “pineapple” passage — if these scores are evidence of Bloomberg’s triumph as steward of the city school system, then pineapples can speak.

Here are some tables and charts on the 2012 tests that may sober up Hizzoner: More »

Credit Accumulation Soars in NYC, But Students Remain Behind

Credit accumulation after phase-in of high stakes accountability

Click on the graphs for larger versions.

Credit accumulation in high need schoolsIt’s standard fare to question the effects of high-stakes testing on education. Mention tests and people will tell you about the narrowing of the curriculum, the lowering of the standards, and the changed understanding of what it means to be educated, which used to have something to do with pleasure and imagination and now has mostly to do with isolated, testable skills. But in New York City, testing is not the only thing that is high stakes, and as it turns out, there are more ways to dumb down an education than to add another high-stakes test to it. Consider, for example, New York City’s high stakes credit accumulation scheme.

In this city, the number of credits awarded to students in high schools truly is high stakes. It counts as nearly one third of each high school’s Progress Report grade, and the Progress Report counts for just about everything, including the removal of principals and the closing of schools. Since the Progress Reports were introduced in 2006-2007, the percent of students earning 10 or more credits each year has leapt a (truly) incredible 16 percentage points citywide. For schools with the highest concentration of high need students (the schools most likely to be threatened with closure) the jump is 18 points. Most schools accrued those gains between the first and second years of the Reports. More »

NY Times Invites Readers to Weigh In on “Fixing the Schools”

In today’s New York Times is a letter from Diane Ravitch in which she responds to David Brooks’s recent column about testing and charters. She begins:

Mr. Brooks has misrepresented my views. While I have criticized charter schools, I am always careful to point out that they vary widely. The overwhelming majority of high-quality research studies on charters shows that some are excellent, some are abysmal and most are no better than regular public schools.

Some charters succeed because they have additional resources, supplied by their philanthropic sponsors; some get better results by adding extra instructional time. We can learn from these lessons to help regular public schools.

The Times adds this note below the letter:

We invite readers to respond to this letter, as part of our new Sunday Dialogue feature. We plan to publish a sampling of responses in the Sunday Review, and Diane Ravitch will be given an opportunity to reply. E-mail: letters@nytimes.com

Paying for Tests vs. Supporting Student Learning

As NY and other states gear up to spend their Race to the Top funds on developing more and more standardized tests and curriculums focused on passing them, here’s a powerful cautionary tale from Detroit about where that money may (vs. should) be going.

What did those of us staying in the same downtown hotel as Hollywood stars like Samuel L. Jackson think we could do to help fix the Detroit Public Schools?

I asked myself that question at the time, and I ask it especially now, when I’m amazed to read about the “draconian” measures being taken by DPS Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb. While he concedes his plan makes neither financial nor academic sense, Bobb is nonetheless attempting to solve DPS’s $327 million budget shortfall by closing nearly half of Detroit’s schools and increasing class sizes in the remaining ones to as high as sixty. It seems an insane idea to me, especially since I feel responsible for a big chunk of that deficit.

The company I worked for, you see, is owned by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt just completed a 15-month contract with the Detroit Public Schools worth $39,859,925.00. That’s right, almost forty million dollars, or more than 12 percent of DPS’s entire budget shortfall, for HMH’s “managed instruction” in reading and math. While I don’t know exactly what forty million dollars of “managed instruction” looks like (who does?), I know some of those millions were used to pay for the tests I helped slap together (mostly recycling passages and questions from our item bank that had been used many times before) and to sponsor my travels to Detroit.

Pre-K Kid vs. Pre-K Kid For The Spoils

Incoming kindergarten students have already been pushed into cutthroat competition against their peers. The coveted trophy is a spot in one of Chicago’s 500 allocated slots for classes for the “gifted.” There are more than 3,330 entries so far, and parents are fighting with all their resources and ingenuity to give their own kid an advantage in this Darwinian survival challenge.

They are coaching their kids themselves and those who can afford it have engaged professional tutors to plant test-acing strategies in their kids’ minds. They are racing to figure out how to crack the secrets of the test so that their kid beats the next guy’s kid to the fast track.

The training centers are commonly referred to as “boot camps.”

This story, reported recently in the Chicago Tribune, provides a perfect example of the pathological role that testing is playing these days. Not only does it substitute for curriculum, it also spoils and supplants the beautiful innocence of childhood. More »