It’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.
Dramatic rises in student performance are rarely worth the spreadsheet they are printed on, and these soaring statistics are no exception. In June, the state informed the city that, in spite of the rapid rise in classroom credits, only 20% of our students are college ready. In other words, all those credits might have been good for accountability’s bottom line but they probably were not good for students who may have done less to earn them (through credit recovery policies, for example1), and who would now need to take remediation classes once they got to college. That’s a serious consequence, every bit as serious as the negative results of high-stakes testing. But when the fate of schools, principals, and mayors hang on the accumulation of credits, students get their credits whether they learned very much or not.
And the DOE’s solution to the college-ready crisis? To add college ready standards to the high school Progress Report, of course. I’d like to blame it on pure cynicism (they like the gaming and want it to continue), but honestly, I think rewards and punishments are the only thing they know.
Meanwhile, Bloomberg continues to crow over his Texas New York miracle. Deprived of bragging rights in the K-8 sector after the state announced that steeply rising test scores were mostly full of hot air, the mayor has shifted the spin to graduation rates. But graduation rates are driven by credit accumulation, which is driven in turn by Progress Reports dangling like a sword over everybody’s head.
As if things were not bad enough, new horrors await us next year when the Progress Reports will also give extra credit to schools that rewrite the education plans of special need students so they can be placed in larger classes among students with very different academic and social needs. Schools will get credit for moving self-contained students into CTT or regular classes. As with credit accumulation policies, this is a political decision and a money decision, and as with credit accumulation it is being masked as a decision in the best interest of students. Those who try to stand against it will be accused of being heartless, old-fashioned and worse.
I wrote about the inherent conflict of interests in the Progress Report four years ago, and I wasn’t the only one. No one listens to us, of course — we are teachers. But sooner or later, when the shouting is done, the schools have been closed, and another generation has been sent off to college to pay for the no-credit remediation they were never given in Bloomberg’s schools — sooner or later everyone will scratch their heads, wonder what happened, and impose new and “rigorous” standards.
And then blame us.
Notes: Credit accumulation data can be found on the Progress Report data sets. In the second chart, I determined student need levels by the peer index on the Progress Reports. The schools represented in that chart are those that fell into the bottom 20% for each year.
The college readiness figure cited above comes from the state and DOE data files, which define students as College Ready if they have attained a 75 or higher on their English Regents and an 80 or higher on their highest Math Regents.
1 Credit recovery allows students to pick up credits for classes that they did not pass, and was unregulated through most of the years covered in this post. During the 09-10 school year the state issued guidelines. Their impact remains unclear.