The UFT and the Department of Education have reached an important agreement on the use of data from the standardized tests of our students. This agreement addresses the major concerns the UFT has expressed in the past over the inappropriate use of standardized test data.
The agreement was reached on the eve of the DoE’s preparation of new reports of standardized test data, based on student scores on the ELA and Math state exams in grades 4 through 8, with a comparison to their performances in previous years where applicable. Principals and teachers will receive the final version of those reports in the schools in November.
A joint letter from DoE Chancellor Joel Klein and UFT President Randi Weingarten to New York City public school educators, reproduced at the end of this post in its entirety, sets forth the agreement. Specifically, this letter explains the best use of the new reports: to empower teachers with information useful in our teaching. In this same vein, the letter expressly prohibits the use of that information for evaluating teachers, in both annual ratings and tenure decisions.
As the capacity to develop new data from standardized tests has grown in recent years, it has become increasingly evident that this information must be interpreted and used with care, based on a clear and comprehensive understanding of what it can and can not tell us as educators. While this data has the potential to enhance education by providing teachers with new tools to understand the educational needs of our students and to fashion our instruction to meet those needs, it can also be misused to make high stakes decisions about students and educators on the basis of partial, inaccurate and misleading information. In order for educators to feel confident in using the data for positive educational ends, we need to know that it will not be misused. This agreement provides that assurance, and allows us to move forward educationally.
Existing standardized tests are imperfect instruments. They are designed for specific purposes, and even the best standardized test becomes invalid and unreliable, the professional testing community warns, when it is misused for other purposes. The standardized tests used in New York, for example, do not include the technical features – vertical alignment grade over grade, single scale calibration, and the measurement of achievement on a uniform interval scale – that the professional testing community sees as necessary for accurately measuring individual student growth. They were designed to measure absolute achievement at a grade level, not progress. For a number of reasons, including the timing of the New York tests themselves, it is impossible to distinguish what a student learned in a particular teacher’s classes. The Klein-Weingarten letter correctly concludes that even the most complete data from standardized tests “can never perfectly represent an individual teacher’s contribution to student learning.” Data from standardized tests needs to be used with these limitations in mind.
Even if standardized tests were better and more reliable measures of actual student learning, it is essential to remember that, again in the words of the Klein-Weingarten letter, “a broad array of factors, many outside of an educator’s direct control, influence student learning.” Teachers embrace accountability for our professional work, but like all professionals, we want to be accountable for – and evaluated on – that which we control. We should be responsible for our teaching, for our instruction in our classrooms, and for basing that teaching on the best processional practices. This agreement supports those best practices, and the education of New York City public school children will benefit.
The work of a teacher is not only about teaching; it’s also about learning. As teachers, you know that this learning process isn’t just something that happens in the first week or year on the job. It’s a career-long effort to perfect your craft—to help more students understand, achieve, and progress.
This learning happens in many ways: when you share ideas with other teachers, when you observe your colleagues’ classes, when you participate in professional development sessions or reflect, on your own, about what you’re doing well and what you could do to improve. While information from sharing and observing is critically important, educators have told us that they want as much information as possible about what’s working and not working in their classrooms. How is your work affecting particular students? For the purposes of learning and growing, how do you compare to other teachers? What are your biggest strengths and successes that you could share with your colleagues? What could you learn from your colleagues that could help you fine tune your skills?
We are writing to let you know that this fall, the Department of Education is giving ELA and math teachers in grades 4-8 and their principals a new tool to help teachers learn about their own strengths and opportunities for development. We all appreciate that there is a broad array of factors, many outside of an educator’s direct control, that influence student learning. At the same time, many of you have told us how useful it would be to better understand how your efforts are influencing student progress. This new tool is designed to help you understand just that. The reports will be provided to all 4-8 grade math and English Language Arts teachers and their principals. They will give teachers access to very useful information, including:
- Whether the data suggest that you had a greater influence on the learning of some groups of students than on others. For example, how have special education students and English language learners fared in your classroom?
- How are you doing with students in the bottom of the class or the top of the class?
- What are other English and math teachers in similar circumstances doing successfully and what could you learn from them? What are your biggest successes that you could share with your colleagues—whether they’re other teachers in your school or teachers through the City?
The reports are based on your students’ performance on last year’s New York State math and ELA exams. If applicable, you will also see information for the two prior testing years. The reports isolate individual teachers’ effect on student learning by controlling for more than 35 different factors outside of a teacher’s control, including class size, students’ prior test scores, and the percentage of students with disabilities and living in poverty in each class. Even with these statistical controls, reports like these can never perfectly represent an individual teacher’s contribution to student learning.
We wish to be clear on one point: the Teacher Data Reports are not to be used for evaluation purposes. That is, they won’t be used in tenure determinations or the annual rating process. Administrators will be specifically directed accordingly. These reports, instead, are designed to help you pinpoint your own strengths and weaknesses, and empower you, working with your principal and colleagues, to devise strategies to improve. The data reports will add to the other sources of information—like periodic assessments, examination of student class and homework, and school inquiry teams—that you can use to develop as professionals. These reports will also help your school community plan collaboratively for professional development and make other instructional decisions.
It may be useful to understand the Teacher Data Reports in the context of two values that are central to the collective work of the Department of Education and the United Federation of Teachers over the past two years: empowerment and collaboration.
We deeply believe that our students have the best opportunity for success when the school, not the school system, is the central point of focus. That is why the school system has shifted more than $350 million from the bureaucracy to schools and classrooms, and that is why schools have been given substantially more power over professional development, scheduling, budget, and even support. This notion of “empowerment” is premised on the view that we need to give educators—the people closest to students with the best knowledge of what it will take to succeed—the decision-making power and tools necessary to determine how to help students succeed. The Teacher Data Reports are very much in that spirit, empowering teachers and schools with even more information that can be the foundation for improved strategies for student success.
Collaboration is an essential ingredient to school success. Over and over again, we have learned what is already intuitively obvious: when teachers work collaboratively with each other and when administrators value and support a collaborative environment, the probability of success rises. Simply put, students benefit when educators work together to assess what they’re doing well and what they need to improve. When educators use this information in a collaborative way to address school shortfalls and build on strengths, they improve their schools and improve results for students. Successful collaboration is at the heart of a well-functioning Inquiry Team, which empowers teachers to work together to solve problems and help children make academic progress. These new Teacher Data Reports will, in many cases, create additional opportunities for collaboration around instructional improvement, by giving teachers and principals additional information that will help them make more informed decisions for their schools and their students.
In the next few weeks, we’re asking schools to verify the student and classroom information in the reports. When the reports become available later this fall, the DOE and UFT will work together to provide you with information, training, resources, and support so you understand the information fully and can begin to put it to use. In the meantime, we encourage you to visit the Teacher Portal [link to Teacher Portal] to learn more and to view a draft of a sample report.
Joel I. Klein and Randi Weingarten