What the First Grade Says About the Rest of Your Life, and How We Change Destiny

Teachers are flooding back to school today: a new contract, a new chancellor, no new school closings, and no ill-conceived new ideas, and, yes, there are grades aside from pre-kindergarten, the one very high profile new initiative.

For the first time in a dozen years we have a mayor and a chancellor who understand the “tale of two cities,” many families in New York City as well as around the state who live in poverty while others bask in luxury.

In the press release that accompanied the release of the state test scores Commissioner King wrote,

“Although there is some correlation between 2014 math and ELA performance and poverty, there are many examples of schools outperforming demographically similar peer schools.”

(See http://www.p12.nysed.gov/irs/pressRelease/20140814/home.html for a list of higher achieving schools and higher growth schools at both higher and lower levels of wealth.)

A quick scan shows us that many of the low wealth/higher achieving schools are screened schools, i.e., principals choose their students. It would make much sense to use “zip code by poverty” than Title 1 eligibility.

There is no question that occasionally a high poverty school “beats the odds,” and, the Education Trust has written extensively about the qualities of these schools (“Yes We Can: Dispelling Myths About Race and Education in America, September 2006″).

If we analyze how the “beat the odds” schools differ from other high poverty schools:

School Leadership: There are endless college programs that grant school leadership certificates – unfortunately the candidates are not exemplary – even the highly touted New York City Leadership Academy does not uniformly produce highly successful principals. School leadership determines school quality and the evidence of the qualities of highly effective school leaders is still elusive. Nature or nurture? Are highly effective principals the result of excellent training programs or inherent qualities? A leadership gene? Growing up in a household that fostered qualities that lead to the qualities of effective leadership?

Teaching-learning synergy: We measure the quality of the teacher and we measure student outcomes, it is still difficult to understand why some teachers are simply more successful than other teachers. The Gates Measures of Effective Teaching Study videotaped thousands of lessons without identifying that “certain something” that could be replicated classroom to classroom.

Reflective teaching: Teachers who regularly ask themselves, from lesson to lesson, from day to day, what was effective, what was not, how can I change the elements of my lesson to make them more effective? Mike Schmoker calls these “checks for understanding,” teachers who do not wait for kids to change, teachers who realize that teaching impacts learning and, unchanged teaching practice that do not change outcomes must be altered.

The union and the contract as partners, not obstacles: In an increasing number of schools the school leadership includes the UFT chapter leader; in some the school leader and the union leadership are at odds. In some schools union chapters use the contract clauses to allow for flexibility in others the contract is used to prevent school leadership initiatives.

True collegiality and collaboration: .Some principals are actually instructional leaders, they lead professional development, they teach demonstration lessons and they have earned the respect of the staff and the student body; however, too few principals possess the skills to actually lead.

With all of these elements the progress may not reflect in dramatically higher test scores. The progress may be measured in fewer suspensions, better attendance and less lateness, more students doing homework, more students engaged in lessons, moving from high level one to low level two is progress.

Yes, there are outliers, there are a few schools with that special combination of school leadership and staff, a combination that is exceptionally difficult to replicate, a combination that may make progress, progress that may not result in a majority of students on level three or higher.

For too many kids in spite of the yeoman efforts of school leaders and teachers geography is destiny.

The Washington Post reports on the end of a twenty-five year study

For 25 years, the authors of The Long Shadow tracked the life progress of a group of almost 800 predominantly low-income Baltimore school children … The authors’ fine-grained analysis confirms that the children who lived in more cohesive neighborhoods, had stronger families, and attended better schools tended to maintain a higher economic status later in life. Combining original interviews with Baltimore families, teachers, and other community members with the empirical data gathered from the authors’ groundbreaking research, The Long Shadow unravels the complex connections between socioeconomic origins and socioeconomic destinations to reveal a startling and much-needed examination of who succeeds and why.

The Russell Sage Foundation writes,

“We like to think that education is an equalizer — that through it, children may receive the tools to become entrepreneurs when their parents were unemployed, lawyers when their single moms had 10th-grade educations. But [the researchers] kept coming back to one data point: the 4 percent of disadvantaged children who earned college degrees by age 28 … education did not appear to provide a dependable path to stable jobs and good incomes for the worst off.

The story is different for children from upper-income families, who supplement classroom learning with homework help, museum trips and college expectations. [the researchers] found one exception: Low-income white boys attained some of the lowest levels of education. But they earned the highest incomes among the urban disadvantaged.”

Let me repeat: only 4% of the disadvantaged children earned college degrees by the age of 28 – among the “urban disadvantaged” white males earned the highest incomes.

Race and class, not education, was the determinant as far as stable jobs and good income are concerned.

We have a mayor, a chancellor and some members of the Regents who understand that education, teaching and learning, cannot be separated from the realities of day to day life. The governor and the legislature and mayors have to work to lessen the “tale of two cities,” the electeds must create jobs and affordable housing and health care.

How about equalizing the district to district disparity in funding? How about encouraging policies that integrate instead of segregating schools? How about understanding that the teacher evaluation process (APPR) is fatally flawed? And, how about creating a testing system that is useful to parents and teachers instead of responding to federal mandates?

Perhaps in a school year without the acrimony of the last decade we can begin to both acknowledge the need for working on the economic inequities and creating more effective schools.

Bad Dreams, Nightmares, Nausea as the First Day of School Approaches for Teachers

Mother: “Johnny, wake up, you’ll be late to school.”
Johnny: “I don’t want to go – the kids hate me, the teachers hate me.”
Mother: “you have to go – you’re the principal.

What happened to the summer? It seemed like yesterday that teachers were poised on the last day of school. For some, a few days off and teaching summer school – gotta pay off those student loans or pay for the wedding. For others back to school yourself to finish up the college credits needed for certification, and, a few flying off to faraway places – to hike the Himalayas or bike across Europe or taking an intensive Spanish class in Central America.

Eight short weeks later the days are getting shorter and the anxiety begins.

“The last few nights I woke up in a cold sweat – what a vivid dream! I had the lowest teacher evaluation score in the school and the other teachers were laughing at me.”

Another teacher, “I keep stressing out about how my kids did on the state tests – I’ve avoided calling my principal – I’m so nervous and it’s driving me nuts.”

A teacher tells me she wants to file a grievance -the principal changed her room. “I’ve been in the room for six years – it’s my room – s/he can’t do that!!”

As the clock ticks down teachers, all teachers, from the first year rookies to the veterans, the pulse beats more quickly, the stomach churns, you try and think of everything – you want that opening day to be perfect.

Many elementary school teachers were in this week working on their rooms – getting ready for the all- important first day. Other schools are spending a day at a staff retreat – working on curriculum maps.

Principals have been in since Monday – dealing with endless e-requests for this or that “compliance” document.

A principal: “The first email I opened was from a math teacher – she apologized for the late notice – she was leaving for another job – I wished her well, and have been scrambling to find a replacement.” Another principal recounted a call from a probation officer – two kids were being released from incarceration and assigned to his school – he was less than joyful.

Teaching is moments of exaltation and moments of misery.

It’s hard to describe that feeling when a tyke wraps his arms around you and whispers, “I love you.” That moment when the light bulb goes off – the kid’s face lights up as he grasps the concept.

A day later a kid cries all day – a parent left, or, his family had to move, again. Her clothes are scruffy and dirty every day – how do you bring in clothes without embarrassing her or her family?

Each teacher is a tiny peg in the 1.1 million student system – the “powers that be” are interested in the mega-scene – those test scores and graduation rates – as a teacher you are singularly focused on the smiling faces each and every day, as a principal you are part psychologist, part social worker, part coach and part disciplinarian – leading a school community and protecting the staff from the frequent insanities of the Tweed plutocracy.

If you read the press you wonder if the New York City school system is only Universal Pre-K, if you’re in the trenches, it’s the first year without a mayor and chancellor trashing the union and the profession – no “dumb” ideas – a chancellor who actually likes teachers.

We’ll be getting off to a good start … can the system keep up the momentum? … can the chancellor and the union keep working together? can the education community find better school assessment metrics? and, the bottom line: will the “new relationship” lead to better results?

(Really Bad) Advice from Chancellor Farina to New Teachers

One of the many insanities of the last fifteen years has been the deeply flawed assumption that school district leaders did not have to be educators. After two lawyers and a community activist Mayor de Blasio chose a chancellor who not only is a career educator but moved up the ranks in New York City from teacher to principal to deputy chancellor to the leader of the 1.1 million student school system.

I have listened to Chancellor Farina speak numerous times and her heartfelt praise of teachers is gratifying; however, her “advice-giving,” which reflects her experience, does not reflect research, and, is disturbing.

Teacher retention is a major issue – in what other profession does half the workforce leave within five years – especially in the poorest schools with the most challenging student populations?

Susan Moore Johnson leads the Next Generation of Teachers Project at Harvard and the project has produced a number of papers to guide policy at school and district levels. Chancellor Farina was probably a superior teacher and school leader; however, it is far better to give advice that is the result of thoughtful research than personal reminiscences.

The Project on the Next Generation of Teachers: (http://isites.harvard.edu/icb/icb.do?keyword=hgse_pngt)

Who Stays in Teaching and Why: A Review of the Literature on Teacher Retention: (http://assets.aarp.org/www.aarp.org_/articles/NRTA/Harvard_report.pdf)

The chancellor met with a group of new teachers and Chalkbeat reports her recommendations:

* New teachers should avoid the teacher’s lunchroom during the first few weeks. It’s where “the whiners” go to gripe, she said.

All schools have cultures, some schools are filled with unhappy people, usually due to a school leadership that has alienated the staff; other schools have inclusive cultures fostered by the school leadership. Senior teachers commonly see “newbies” as filled with enthusiasm, “clickish” and distrusting of senior teachers. (“They treat us like we’re their children” versus “All they do is hang out together “). New teachers should “hang out” with other teachers on their grade or department, ask questions, listen, and definitely not avoid the lunchroom. The “whiners” may also be excellent teachers. The worst thing new teachers can do is to segregate themselves – isolation leads to frustration and alienation and is a primary reason for quitting.

* Collaborate with your peers through one-on-one lunches or by swapping classrooms once a week. An educator skilled in teaching literacy could switch classrooms with another who excels in teaching math, for example.

Building collaborative teams is a key to school improvement and job satisfaction. One-on-one lunches can become gripe sessions – one-on-one lunches with whom? Other new teachers? Hopefully the school leader has some sort of mentoring system in a school – don’t bet on it. Switching classrooms is an advanced skill – way down the road – many schools provide collaborative planning time for grades or departments: newer teachers may have better computer skills and can assist colleagues in setting up a grade/department “dropbox,” to share lesson plans. Sitting in on a lesson taught by a teacher on your grade/department is refreshing and team building. Exchanging graded papers, creating grade/department rubrics, all activities that bring you closer to colleagues and make the teaching experience less isolating and less frustrating.

* Celebrate students’ birthdays with something more productive than a cupcake or balloons. When she was a teacher, Farina said she wouldn’t give students homework on his or her birthday. If the child had few friends, she’d let him or her pick two friends who would also have no homework, to help “bring them into the fold.”

Why would you ever want to convey the impression that homework is punitive? Why would you ever want to offer not doing homework as a “reward”? If homework is boring the assignment is a poor assignment. Homework should be a check on the previous day’s work and motivation and preparation for the next day’s work. Teachers can differentiate assignments to match the needs, interests and abilities of the students. Hopefully the chancellor’s audience did not include secondary school teachers – on too many occasions I’ve listened to the chancellor – in her previous role – give “advice” to secondary school teachers far more appropriate for elementary school teachers.

* Don’t ask teachers in the grade below you for names of the “bad” kids. Instead, ask for the parents who they had trouble reaching.

“Bad” kids? Don’t you want to know as much about the kids in your class as possible, all kids? Living in a shelter, a group home, parent is in prison, living with a grandparent, suspicions of abuse, you want to be able to tailor your instruction to the socio-emotional needs of the child. S/he may be “bad” because they’re angry or frightened – how can you assuage the anger or fear? “Trouble reaching parents,” of course, in many of our schools parents are undocumented and fear any school interaction, or, unfortunately disengaged, and view school as a place to “house” kids during the day. The more know about your students, all of your students, the more you can figure out how to engage them.

* Send home “wow letters” in the first week to kids who are more of a challenge. You’ll give the student something to celebrate, and it also helps to “have those parents in your pocket when you have to tell the harder truths.”

Why would we want to give parents false impressions? – “Wow” them so we tell them the “harder truths”? In our poorest schools parents are disengaged, simply putting food on the table is an enormous challenge. The chancellor was the principal of PS 6, one of the highest achieving schools on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and the community superintendent in Brownstone Brooklyn, again, an area in which many of the parents were fully engaged. Communicating with parents is a complex task – Can the parents read English? How can you bring parents into the classroom/school? Perhaps, a musical presentation, a gallery walk, a potluck luncheon, filling out a high school application, or, FAFSA college aid form, and, sports team activities.

Nannies don’t bring kids to school in Brownsville or South Jamaica or Morrisiana.

Once again, why not check the research on parent engagement?

The Harvard Family Research Project, Beyond the Bake Sale: The Essential Guide to Family–School Partnerships by Anne Henderson, Karen Mapp, Vivian Johnson, and Don Davies (http://isites.harvard.edu/icb/icb.do?keyword=hgse_pngt)

I respect the chancellor – she has provided a calm; a voice for teachers and for the profession – she has not flooded us with “new” ideas – we have had enough of “disruptive” theories of school change, we shouldn’t have to be constantly looking over our shoulder. Principals are the school leaders and the best ideas come from those closest to the kids.

Off the cuff comments about a teaching career that ended decades ago and does not reflect the reality of today’s classroom is not helpful. Maybe someone should whisper into the chancellor’s ear – introducing a second or third year teacher to explain to her/his peers how they survived and prospered may be far more effective.

Legerdemain: Can We Trust the State Test Scores? and, Does it Matter? Shouldn’t We Ask: Why Are Some Schools Succeeding and Others Struggling?

Are increasing standardized test scores an affirmation of educational policy? “Proof” that teachers are more or less effective? Or, evidence that kids are learning more? Maybe an elaborate exercise in statistical legerdemain?

The August 14th State Ed presser begins, “Students statewide made significant progress in math [31.2 to 35.8%) … Students made slight progress in ELA [31.3 to 31.4%]”

To put it another way 64.2% of students on the math test and 68.6% on the ELA test scored at the level 2 or below, “below proficient,” or, under the new nomenclature, scored at the “partial proficiency level.” Do we call level 1 “approaching partial proficiency?” BTW, is “1984” on the Common Core reading list? The new definitions are prime examples of “Doublespeak,” [a language that deliberately disguises, distorts, or reverses the meaning of words].

On August 17th Susan Edelman, in the NY Post called into question the validity of the test scores,

State officials touted increases in scores on tough Common Core exams this year but failed to reveal that they had lowered the number of right answers needed to pass half the exams.

The state Education Department dropped the number of raw points needed to hit proficiency levels in six of the 12 English and math exams given to students in grades 3 to 8, officials acknowledged.

The following day, Geoff Decker on Chalkbeat reported,

… state officials took the unusual step on Monday of posting a memo to its web site that explains why they lowered the number of correct questions needed to pass some of this year’s state reading and math tests. Officials characterized the adjustments as routine and necessary to maintain a consistent level of difficulty over time.

See state memo here: http://www.p12.nysed.gov/irs/ela-math/equatingexplained.html

There is good reason to be skeptical – from 2006 to 2010 scores increased significantly each year, as questions arose, the Regents asked Harvard professor Daniel Koretz to investigate the scores. The Report found that the test questions were highly predictable and the test far too easy. The implication was clear: the state knew exactly what it was doing – the only victims were the kids.

As the questions about the current test increased the state continued to respond, Commissioner King, on his News and Notes wrote,

There was significant progress in math across all types of schools and districts and all student subgroups. However, the results were flatter in English Language Arts. There was only slight progress in ELA, with variation among schools and districts – even significant variation among schools within the same district. In particular, although there was an increase in student scores New York City and other higher need and larger school districts (e.g., Yonkers), there were year-to-year decreases in our lower need school districts.

The King post includes a scatterplot, which the commissioner claims,

… although there is a relationship between poverty and performance, there are exceptions at all levels of wealth. Just as there are schools that perform above and below the statewide proficiency level at lower levels of wealth, there are schools that perform above and below the statewide proficiency level at higher levels of wealth

Demography may not be destiny; however, breaking the paradigm is an enormous challenge, The obstacles may not be insurmountable, some kids manage to swim the moats and vault the walls. and navigate the gangs and the cops.

King goes on,

These results make clear that those who claim that demography is destiny and that we cannot improve teaching and learning until we have first fixed poverty are simply mistaken.

This is not to imply that poverty is an unimportant factor – it is extremely important, for all of us. But the idea that poverty or family circumstances outside of school are insurmountable obstacles for teaching and learning is a fallacy. As educators, we should all be active in the national discourse on issues of inequality and how best to expand opportunity for all. However, we must commit ourselves to use the time we have with our students in school as effectively as possible and to do all we can to ensure that education helps to shape a path out of poverty. Our colleagues have done it. Our students have done it. We can do it.

We need to understand the factors that help a school achieve better learning outcomes for high needs students (higher poverty / higher performance schools). Conversely, we also need to understand the reasons why other schools do not perform as well as their demographic peers, despite having an abundance of resources and wealth (lower poverty / lower performance schools). What are the policy, leadership, and instructional practices that produce great results for our kids that can be echoed and expanded across the state? What are the educational investments – from high-quality pre-K to expanded learning time to community schools partnerships providing wrap-around services to socioeconomically integrated magnet schools – we need to make as a state in order to accelerate improvement?

The commissioner links to a listing of schools, highest to lowest, schools with the significant percentage of Title 1 eligible students (on the far right column),


As I peruse the list I see school after school that are screened, the school has academic admission criteria, they select their students, other schools have high percentages of Asian students (not on the chart – the neighborhood tells the story).

If we seek schools in high poverty zip codes, alas, we don’t find any high achieving schools. When the commissioner writes, “We need to understand the factors that help a school achieve better learning outcomes for high needs students (higher poverty / higher performance schools).” the answer cannot be handpick your student body – which as we know is the unwritten policy in many charter schools.

I agree with the commissioner – we do have to seek out why some high poverty schools do significantly better than others. We should examine school leadership, the school staff, external community supports, and delve into each one – i.e., the experience of the school leader as a teacher and as a school leader, the educational background, the experience of the staff, staff stability/mobility, and sensitive issues, does the race/ethnicity of the school leader/staff impact student achievement?

This wealth of data begs for an analysis:

* All teachers have a score on the HEDI scale (highly effective, effective, developing and ineffective) – does a school’s median teacher HEDI score correlate with pupil achievement?

* Are high HEDI score teachers clustered in high achieving schools/school districts, and, the converse, are low HEDI score teachers clustered in low achieving schools/school districts?

* Especially in NYC, do high HEDI score teachers move to higher achieving schools and what is the impact on the lower achieving school that they left?

and, a crucial question: to what extent is pupil academic growth based on teacher quality, on socio-economic factors and how much simply random?

Some of these questions may have uncomfortable answers: for the commissioner and for teachers – it is time to put ideology aside and look at the data – too much research is advocacy research – we can tell the outcomes by looking at the source of the report.

Too much emphasis is based on the Common Core, tests and test scores, and not enough on the “whys,” why are schools making progress, or why not?

Defending ideological “iron laws” from Washington or Albany is a disservice to families, children, principals and teachers – we learn from what happens in classrooms.

Should Pre-K Classrooms Be “Play-Based” or Have a Common Core Standards -Based Academic Component?

Have you been hanging out with four or five year olds lately?

They vary in size, maturity, literacy and numeracy skills; US schools assign kids to grades by age, some children just turned four and other are almost five, some kids don’t speak a word of English, some haven’t been a few feet away from their mother, others live in shelters, some mothers are teenagers, other caregivers are grandparents. Their vocabulary varies widely, their experiences vary widely. Pre-kindergarten teachers have a daunting task.

The 68 page New York State Foundation Standards for the Common Core gets off to a good start, a long list of what the standards should NOT be used for -

* an assessment tool
* a curriculum
* mandate specific teaching practices,

However, when you click on the ELA pre-k standards you find a checklist. See a section of the ELA pre-k standards below:

* With prompting and support, students will compare and contrast two stories relating to the same topic.
*. With prompting and support, students will make cultural connections to text and self.
* Actively engage in group reading activities with purpose and understanding.
* With prompting and support, make connections between self, text, and the world around them (text, media, and social interaction).

The Engage NY website does provide yearlong curriculum maps (See maps here).

On one hand the state rejects an assessment checklist and on the other hand the state provides a checklist.

An experienced pre-k teacher was reminiscing about her first week of teaching a pre-k class,

“Two children were crying, a child having a fit flailing on the floor, two kids hung onto me and followed me around the room, the biggest kid took whatever wanted, a bully, and, suddenly one child shouted, “Juan made a pee-pee,” and poor Juan was standing in the middle of the room as the puddle grew. It was the toughest few weeks of my life,”

Where will the department find hundreds, perhaps thousands of pre-k teachers? Will the teachers be adequately training prior to the beginning of the school year? A scant three weeks away.

There is a major dispute over the content in pre-k and kindergarten classrooms. Should the classrooms be play-based or should the classrooms have an academic component?

The supporters of play argue,

Those outside the early childhood profession who have little understanding of children may be wondering why we place so much emphasis on play. As early childhood educators, we are often called on to justify scheduling two hours of play in a kindergarten program or encouraging children’s play all day in a preschool. Many parents do not understand or appreciate the kind of outcomes that are possible with children’s play. Those who have studied children’s play and those educators who spend their days observing children at play can describe many rich benefits of play.

* Children develop a sense of competence.
* Children are able to practice skills.
* Children are able to develop socially
* Children are able to solve problems and make decisions in a safe situation
*Children gather and process information.
*Children express emotions, release tension, and explore anxiety-producing situations

In addition to the general benefits we just listed, there are specific learning outcomes that children achieve easily through play. Children develop their literacy understandings and skills through play, their mathematical concepts through play, and their science appreciations and processes through play. Information about developmental levels of play can guide your observations and enable you to interpret more accurately what you see children doing

Although the Common Core State Standards list specific skills for each grade and others argue that an overemphasis on play does a disservice to children,

Education Week avers,

Recent research by Sean F. Reardon of Stanford University shows that average reading and math scores of incoming kindergartners from high-income backgrounds are a full standard deviation higher than those of children from families with low incomes. The size of this gap among 5-year-olds is staggering, and reducing it will require efforts on multiple fronts. Access to instruction that is engaging, challenging, and fosters a love of learning is a key ingredient. To suggest that kindergartners should be deprived of the opportunity to engage deeply in learning literacy and numeracy is to sell them short at a crucial moment in their development.

A growing body of research has taught us about the critical role of early exposure to language and literacy for children’s development. We have also documented vast differences in early exposure to language between children from disadvantaged backgrounds and their peers. There is strong support for both early-childhood parental interventions and preschool programs as strategies for narrowing these gaps. It seems only logical, then, that a strong emphasis on language, literacy, and reading during kindergarten would be another key component for reducing inequality of opportunity.

In light of the adoption of the Common Core State Standards in kindergarten across the vast majority of states, let’s shift the conversation about “appropriate” early-childhood learning.

Rather than focusing on whether academic content has a place in early-childhood classrooms, let’s focus on how to teach it in a way that is tailored to young learners. Let’s focus on creating engaging, fun, developmentally appropriate learning experiences for all kindergartners, acknowledging the importance of embedding enriching language and numeracy experiences within those environments.

Are play-based classrooms the developmentally appropriate approach to teaching four and five years olds or do the “vast differences in early exposure to language between children from disadvantaged backgrounds and their peers” require an emphasis “enriching language and numeracy experiences”?

Strangely the debate over the content within pre-k classrooms has not arisen in New York City. In the battle over standardized testing tests below grade three are prohibited, although, is a checklist a test? Is the common core, with specific sets of ELA and math standards leaking into pre-k?

The state is providing Core Knowledge curriculum maps, the Engage NY site recommends; however, curriculum decisions are made within school districts.

Pre-k teachers are passionate about their classrooms; it will be fascinating to see whether the Farina administration adopts any of the “play-based” curricula.

In the world of private pre-k education Montessori, Waldorf, Reggio Emilia and Bank Street are the choices of middle/upper class parents – will the department choose any of these pre-k approaches?

Will the more “academic” approaches associated with the Common Core make up for disadvantages of poverty, or, will the approaches fly in the face of all that we know about child development?

Should be an interesting year.

New York State Grades 3-8 Test Scores Released: “Flat” or “Modest Gains.” All With a Yawn

The city was rapidly emptying as the caravans to the Hamptons, Fire Island, the Jersey Shore and the Catskills had begun. Principals were in the middle of their two week vacation and parents savoring the last few weeks before the end of sleep-away camp: the New York State ELA/math test scores were released.

The state has been artfully hinting about the scores for weeks and the Thursday afternoon release was neither a bang nor a whimper, maybe a yawn.

Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl H. Tisch and State Education Commissioner John B. King, Jr. today released the results … Statewide, the percentage of students scoring at the proficient level and above in math rose from 31.2 to 35.8 across all grades combined. The percentage of students scoring at the partial proficiency level and above also rose in math, from 66.9 to 69.6 percent. Students made slight progress in ELA, (the percentage of students scoring at the proficient level and above rose 31.3 to 31.4 percent across all grades combined), though progress varied across the need/resource categories. The percentage of students scoring at the partial proficiency level and above in ELA also rose slightly, from 69 to 70 percent. Encouraging gains were made by Black and Latino students, particularly in New York City.

Please note an important change, students who score below proficient, who we used to say failed the test, are now referred to as scoring at the “partial proficiency level.”

The ELA scores were characterized as “flat” across the state and in the NYC and the other large cities as showing “modest gains.”

Year-to-year performance increases were largest in New York City and Yonkers, and New York City’s performance approached statewide levels.

o Buffalo: the percentage of students scoring at Level 3 and above improved from 12.1 in 2013 to 12.2 in 2014.
o New York City: the percentage of students scoring at Level 3 and above improved from 27.4 in 2013 to 29.4 in 2014.
o Syracuse: the percentage of students scoring at Level 3 and above stayed the same, at 8.5, from 2013 to 2014.
o Rochester: the percentage of students scoring at Level 3 and above improved from 5.6 in 2013 to 5.7 in 2014.
o Yonkers: the percentage of students scoring at Level 3 and above improved from 16.9 in 2013 to 18.7 in 2014.

What the state does not explain is the impact of opt-outs, students whose parents opted their children out of taking the exams. The Wall Street Journal reports the number of opt-outs rose from 10-15,000 last year to 55-60,000 this year. How did the opt-outs impact the scores? Were they students with disabilities who had low scores last year? In other words did the scores reflection “addition by subtraction”? Or, conversely, are the opt-outs kids who did well on the tests last year and dragged down district scores this year? Were the opt-outs concentrated in certain areas of the city and the state?

The state did not make any information available on the opt-outs.

The scores are not surprising – the 2013 tests were brand new tests based on the brand new common core standards, the state produced curriculum modules were ragged and the professional development varied widely from school district to school district and from school to school.

We can look at scores from three perspectives:

The Cumulative Impact: Each year teachers will become more confident and more skilled in teaching lessons that reflect the common core standards and each year schools will have more and more books and materials that reflect the standards. The scores will incrementally increase each year.

The Test Sophistication Impact: Test prep drives test scores – the ability of teachers to teach to the test, to prepare students for the particular type of questions to expect on the test. Each year the test prep materials will improve and students and teachers will become more familiar with the tests – test prep rather than the day-to-day instruction will drive high scores. Cynical, but the current tests drive test prep.

The Test Creation – Standards-Setting Process: Both the creation of the test, aka, the crafting of the questions and the process to create the scoring level, known as standards-setting, is carried out totally in the dark. This year the state only released half the questions – before 2013 all the questions were released. The Technical Report, the data which actually establishes the validity and reliability of the test is not released in a timely manner and is sharply redacted – we don’t know whether the test actually tests what it purports. In other words, is the state “massaging” the process?

A bright spot: New York City did show gains above the gains of other large cities and is approaching scores at the state-wide level. Did New York City do a better job of professional development? Is the quality of teachers higher in the city? Or, is it something about our changing student population?

The purpose of the common core standards and the testing regimen is to raise the quality of instruction and produce more “college and career ready” students. In 1997 the Regents took a dramatic step. They began the phase-out of the Regents Competency Test (RCT) and move to a single Regents diploma. Most of the students in the state graduated high school with an RCT diploma – called the local diploma, the very same “Sturm und Drang” that characterized the move to the single diploma. Did it produce more “college ready” students? Over the dozen years of the phase-in of the single diploma commissioners came and went – who knows?

In fact, although we casually throw around the term “college and career ready” we don’t have a firm definition. We say “grades of 75 on the English Regents and 80 on the Algebra 1 Regents” defines college ready – although we don’t have much supporting data, and, career ready has no definition – we tend to associate it with Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs.

What the state continues to ignore is comparing poverty indices to pupil achievement – the higher the level of poverty the lower the achievement on tests. Charter schools pare away the higher achieving high poverty kids which negatively impacts the neighborhood schools.

As the November gubernatorial election nears the Republicans will hammer away at testing and the common core; when school opens parent anger may or may not subside. The Congress will not reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and, if the Republicans gain control of the Senate we will probably see a flood of legislation limiting the authority of the US Department of Education.

The common core has entered the political arena.

Unemployment, underemployment, poverty, single parent households and gang-crime infested neighborhoods exist side by side to high-rise, high income buildings. Bill de Blasio’s “a tale of two cities” did not disappear upon his election.

Yes, we must continue improve our craftsmanship, continue to strive to attract and retain the “best and the brightest” school leaders and principals; however, we cannot ignore the worlds that house too many kids.

Scores make headlines for a day or two – they don’t change the worlds our kids live in day after day.

Are New York State Common Core Grades 3-8 Tests Valid, Reliable and Stable Reflectors of Student Achievement?

Are New York State grades 3-8 tests valid, reliable and stable reflectors of student achievement? In other words, are these “good” tests? And, are they useful to parents and teachers, or, just poorly designed accountability tools to measure teacher, principal and school performance?

On the eve of the release of the 2014 ELA/Math test results parents and teachers are wary.

Last year, the first year of the common core tests, the state tried, unsuccessfully, to mollify parents. The commissioner tells us, yes, your kids did terribly, swallow the medicine, in the long run your kids will be better prepared for college and life

The 2013 State presser:

“These proficiency scores do not reflect a drop in performance, but rather a raising of standards to reflect college and career readiness in the 21st century,” King said. “I understand these scores are sobering for parents, teachers, and principals. It’s frustrating to see our children struggle. But we can’t allow ourselves to be paralyzed by frustration; we must be energized by this opportunity. The results we’ve announced today are not a critique of past efforts; they’re a new starting point on a roadmap to future success.

• 31.1% of grade 3-8 students across the State met or exceeded the ELA proficiency standard; 31% met or exceeded the math proficiency standard
• The ELA proficiency results for race/ethnicity groups across grades 3-8 reveal the persistence of the achievement gap: only 16.1% of African-American students and 17.7% of Hispanic students met or exceeded the proficiency standard
• 3.2% of English Language Learners (ELLs) in grades 3-8 met or exceeded the ELA proficiency standard; 9.8% of ELLs met or exceeded the math proficiency standard
• 5% of students with disabilities met or exceeded the ELA proficiency standard; 7% of students with disabilities met or exceeded the math proficiency standard

As the parent anger grew the commissioner embarked on a listening tour – at the first stop in Poughkeepsie parents responded angrily. See U-Tube of meeting: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P_Eiz406VAs)

The rumors are the scores across the state this year are “flat.” Over 30,000 parents in the state opted-out of the state tests and the parent revolt around the state morphed from a brush fire to a conflagration. At the end of the legislative session a law stayed the impact of student test scores on students and teachers for two years. The Republicans have just filed petitions, with over 60,000 signatures to add a “Stop the Common Core” line to the November gubernatorial ballot.

Annual state tests only began in 2003 with the passage of a reauthorization of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), renamed, No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The law required the testing of all students in grades 3 through 8 (previously only students in grade 4 and 8 were tested), the setting of a progress goal, called Adequate Yearly Progress (See detailed description here), the public reporting of scores by sub-group with the goal of having all student achieve on grade level by 2014.

Each year the state tests were administered in April, all the tests questions released a few months later, the student scores released in August and a Technical Report released in December, a detailed analysis of the test.

Beginning with the 2013 common core tests the state changed the practice – only 25% of the questions were released and an abbreviated Technical Report was not issued until July 2014, fifteen months after the exam was administered; for the 2014 round of tests the state has just released 50% of the test questions.

Fred Smith, a former testing guru in the NYC Department of Education raises the cogent questions (Read entire article here),

… the State Education Department took a half-step by releasing 50 percent of the English and math questions from the April 2014 exams. It was a half-step not just because it falls halfway short of full disclosure, but also because SED fails to provide data at its disposal that would enable objective evaluation of the questions, each of which is a brick in the wall of the testing program.

Until 2011, SED made complete copies of the annual statewide exams available on its web site shortly after they were given, along with the answer keys. People could ponder the test content and thought processes required of students to answer the questions. Every year, no later than December, a technical report was issued giving specific information about each item.

These data included the percentage of students who answered the item correctly (the p-value) and the percentage who chose each incorrect option (distractor) or omitted the item. In addition, a vital statistic was reported showing how well the item functioned (the discrimination index). This allowed reviewers to learn about how every item was working, to identify which ones might be weak and to reach an overall judgment about test quality.

The ability to see all operational items in a timely manner and match them one-to-one against analytic data afforded a reasonable way to study the tests. Since Pearson became the test publisher in 2011, however, SED has hoarded the kind of item-level data needed to render an informed opinion about the tests.

The state has never given a satisfactory answer to the crucial question: why they closed the door to full transparency? At one point claiming the cost of releasing all the questions is too high, or, due to the nature of the contract with Pearson there are confidentiality issues, are not acceptable. The standards setting, the process by which each question is assigned a difficulty level (Level 1-4) is also cloaked in secrecy – the members of the standards setting team must sign confidentiality agreements, principals and teachers are banned from discussing individual questions; secrecy only leads to speculation: does Pearson or the state have something to hide?

In the pre-2013 era the tests reflected curricula content – to what extent did students “learn” the particular content in ELA and math that was required for each grade, the common core exams were significantly different, rather than testing content the exams test the standards – to be more accurate the application of the standards. Schools are now expected to teach content through the lens of specific standards set by distant anonymous committees under the direction of the National Governors Association, and, the actual curriculum modules have been released piecemeal by the state and vary in quality. The state maintains curriculum decisions should be made at the local level.

If the purpose of the tests are to measure student progress, sampling techniques, the procedures used by NAEP. PISA and TIMMS, would be sufficient. If the purpose is to inform parents and teachers of student weakness the tests do not achieve that purpose. The sole purpose of the exams appears to be to hold teachers, principals and schools accountable. The state maintains the 2013 tests set a baseline and each year the results measure the growth, or lack thereof, from the baseline.

Whether an improvement in scores is due to test sophistication or improved instruction is impossible to tell. It will be years before we can determine whether the common core standards have any impact on student learning.

Unfortunately the mishandling of the rollout of the tests, the refusal to delay the implementation, the ragged release of curriculum modules, and especially an arrogance toward parent concerns have thrust the common core into the political arena.

Peter DeWitt, a former New York State principal, writes in Education Week,

We should stop talking about achievement and start having real dialogue about growth. Achievement means that leaders like King only care about the adults in the room (teacher evaluation), and his lack of experience in the classroom doesn’t help him understand the importance of getting students to become assessment capable (Hattie. 2012).

Focusing on growth will help students become assessment-capable, college and career ready, 21stcentury learners. Until King discusses growth and not achievement, and can provide schools with feedback that is “Just in time and just for them in a timely manner that matters most (Hattie)” he will just be sending out another memo that infuriates school leaders and gets deleted in much quicker fashion than it took to write.

Unless we radically change the testing process in New York State the winds of politics will prevail and the common core will become another failed innovation.