First Person

Guessing My Way to Promotion

Last week I read a thought-provoking column by Diane Ravitch in the New York Post, in which she discusses the lowering of the bar on New York State math and ELA tests. She points out that to reach level 2, which is sufficient for promotion in New York City, a student needs a significantly lower percentage of points than he or she would have needed three years ago. Ravitch comments. “Ending social promotion, as the city rightly wants to do, is thus meaningless, because students can reach Level 2 by just guessing.”

Likewise, Meredith Kolodner writes in the Daily News, “The number of correct answers needed to score a Level 2 to get promoted has sunk so low that a student can guess on the multiple choice section and leave the rest of the test blank.”

This is disturbing. Surely it isn’t possible to get a 2—and thus a promotion to the next grade—by just guessing! Or is it?

To find out, I conducted a little experiment. First, some background facts:

(a)Each question on each of the tests is worth a certain number of points. The total number of points earned on a given test is the raw score.
(b) Each test has its own conversion table for converting the raw score to a scale score.
(c) The conversion from scale score to proficiency level is different for each grade and subject (though 650 is the minimum for a level 3 across the board).
(d) Thus, to find out if a student got a 2 on a test, you have to (1) correct the test, (2) calculate the raw score, (3) convert it to scale score, and then (4) convert the scale score to proficiency level.

The New York State Education Department website has all the tests, scoring keys, and tables you need.

Now follow along with me as I reproduce the experiment. My question was: is it possible to get a 2 by just guessing?

I first tried my experiment with the sixth grade ELA test. I “guessed” all the answers on the multiple-choice portion and left the written portions blank. Or, rather, I didn’t “guess,” but filled in the answers as follows: A, B, C, D, A, B, C, D, and so on, all the way through the 26 questions. I didn’t read one of them.

Now, of course I got a zero on the written portions, but let’s see if I got enough points on the multiple-choice questions alone. To find out, I first consulted the scoring key. The total number of possible raw points is 39: 26 for the multiple-choice questions, and 13 for the written portions I scored myself. Remember that I answered A, B, C, D, A, B, C, D, etc. According to the key, I earned 12 points.

Now I went to the raw to scale score conversion chart to calculate my scale score (if you are following along, be sure to click on the “Grade 6” tab at the bottom of the chart). According to this chart, my scale score was 622.

From here I consulted the “Definitions of Performance Levels for the 2009 Grades 3-8 English Language Arts Tests.” According to this table, a sixth grader needs a scale score of 598-649 in order to attain level 2. My score fell within that range, so I got a 2 without looking at a single test question or writing a single word.

I thought to myself: What if the sixth grade ELA test were a fluke? I tried the same experiment with the seventh grade math test.

Again, I only worried about the multiple-choice questions. Actually I didn’t worry about them at all; I simply answered them A, B, C, D, A, B, C, D, as I had done with the sixth-grade ELA test. There were thirty such questions.

I then went to the scoring key. I scored 11 raw points. According to the raw score to scale score conversion chart, this gave me a scale score of 616 (be sure to scroll down to the 7th grade chart). Is that enough for a 2? I consulted the “Definitions of Performance Levels for the 2009 Grades 3-8 Mathematics Tests.” A seventh grader needs a scale score of 611-649 on the math test to get a 2. So I got a 2 without solving a single math problem, or even looking at one.

While this approach does not result in a 2 for all the tests, it comes a bit too close for comfort, and another guessing system might work. A fifth grader told me that his father had told him, “Just mark ‘C’ for all of the answers, and you will pass.” On the fifth grade ELA test, this would indeed have resulted in a 2.

Yes, it is possible to guess your way to promotion. You may not even have to look at the questions or write a word on the written sections. It may not be called social promotion, but it amounts to the same thing: You do not need to know or understand much to move along.

Diana Senechal taught in NYC public schools for four years and has stepped back to write a book. She has a Ph.D. in Slavic Languages and Literatures from Yale; her education writing has appeared in Education Week, the Core Knowledge Blog, and Joanne Jacobs.

First Person

To close out teacher appreciation week, meet the educators whose voices help shape the education conversation

From designing puzzles to get kids fired up about French to being christened “school mama” by students, teachers go above and beyond to make a difference. Chalkbeat is honored to celebrate Teacher Appreciation week with stories of the innovation, determination, and patience it takes to teach.  
Check out a few of the educator perspectives below and submit your own here.

  1. First Person: When talking about race in classrooms, disagreement is OK — hatred is not by David McGuire, principal at Tindley Accelerated Schools and previously a teacher in Pike Township. McGuire is also a co-founder of a group called Educate ME.  
  2. First Person: What my Bronx students think about passing through scanners at school by Christine Montera, a teacher at East Bronx Academy for the Future in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators 4 Excellence-New York.  
  3. First Person: What 100 ninth graders told me about why they don’t read by Jarred Amato, High School English teacher and founder of ProjectLITCommunity.
  4. This fourth-grade teacher doesn’t take away recess or use points to manage the class. Instead she’s built a culture of respect by Liz Fitzgerald, a fourth-grade teacher at Sagebrush Elementary and Colorado Teaching Policy fellow.
  5. First Person: Why I decided to come out to my second-grade students by Michael Patrick a second grade teacher at AF North Brooklyn Prep Elementary.
  6. Meet the teacher who helped organize the Women’s March on Denver, a profile of Cheetah McClellan, Lead Math Fellow at Denver Public Schools.
  7. First Person: At my school, we let students group themselves by race to talk about race — and it works, by Dave Mortimer, and educator at Bank Street School for Children.
  8. What Trump’s inauguration means for one undocumented Nashville student-turned-teacher a profile of Carlos Ruiz, a Spanish teacher at STRIVE Prep Excel and Teach for America fellow.
  9. First Person: ‘I was the kid who didn’t speak English’ by Mariangely Solis Cervera, the founding Spanish teacher at Achievement First East Brooklyn High School.
  10. First Person: Why recruiting more men of color isn’t enough to solve our teacher diversity problem by Beau Lancaster, a student advocate at the Harlem Children’s Zone and  Global Kids trainer teaching, writing, and developing a civic engagement and emotional development curriculum.
  11. Sign of the times: Teacher whose classroom-door sign went viral explains his message a profile of Eric Eisenstad, physics and biology teacher at Manhattan Hunter Science High School.
  12. First Person: How teachers should navigate the classroom debate during a polarizing election year  by Kent Willmann, an instructor at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education. He previously taught high school social studies in Longmont for 32 years.
  13. First Person: I teach students of color, and I see fear every day. Our job now is to model bravery by Rousseau Mieze, a history teacher at Achievement First Bushwick charter middle school.
  14. Pumpkin pie with a side of exhaustion: Why late fall is such a tough time to be a teacher by Amanda Gonzales, a high school special education teacher in Commerce City, Colorado.
  15. This teacher was a ‘class terrorist’ as a child. Now he uses that to understand his students by Andrew Pillow a technology and social issues teacher at KIPP Indy College Prep Middle.
  16. What this teacher learned when her discipline system went awry — for all the right reasons by Trilce Marquez, a fourth-grade teacher at P.S. 11 in Chelsea.
  17. Here’s what one Tennessee teacher will be listening for in Haslam’s State of the State address by Erin Glenn, a U.S. history teacher at East Lake Academy of Fine Arts and Tennessee Educator Fellow with the State Collaborative on Reforming Education.
  18. An earth science teacher talks about the lesson that’s a point of pride — and pain a profile of Cheryl Mosier, a science teacher at Columbine High School.
  19. A national teacher of the year on her most radical teaching practice: trusting kids to handle their bathroom business by Shanna Peeples, secondary English language arts curriculum specialist for Amarillo ISD.
  20. How this teacher went from so nervous her “voice was cracking” to a policy advocate by Jean Russell, a literacy coach at Haverhill Elementary School,  2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year and TeachPlus statewide policy fellow.

First Person

I’m a black man raised on the mistaken idea that education could keep me safe. Here’s what I teach my students in the age of Jordan Edwards

The author, Fredrick Scott Salyers.

This piece is presented in partnership with The Marshall Project

I worry a lot about the students in the high school where I teach. One, in particular, is bright but struggles in class. He rarely ever smiles and he acts out, going so far recently as to threaten another teacher. As a black, male teacher — one of too few in the profession — I feel especially compelled to help this young black man reach his potential. Part of that work is teaching him the dangers that might exist for him, including the police.

The killing of Texas teenager Jordan Edwards proves, though, that it’s not just black boys with behavior issues who are in danger. Jordan — a high school freshman, star athlete and honor student — was shot dead by a police officer last month while leaving a house party. As he rode away from the party in a car driven by his older brother, officers who’d been called to the scene fired multiple rifle rounds at the car. One bullet went through the passenger window, striking Jordan in the head. Murder charges have since been filed against the officer who fired the fatal shot.

It’s a near impossible task to educate black children in a society that constantly interrupts that work with such violence. Still, it’s incumbent on educators like me to guide our students through the moment we’re living in — even when we can’t answer all their questions, and even if we’re sometimes confused ourselves.

I began teaching in 2014, the year the police killings of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice dominated headlines. The tragedies have piled on, a new one seeming to occur every month since I first stepped into a classroom. I currently teach ninth-graders at a predominantly black charter school in Brooklyn, and I often find myself struggling to make sense of the events for my students.

I’ve shown them clips from popular films like “Selma” and “Fruitvale Station” and prepared lessons on the civil rights movement, and I’ve done my best to ground it all in the subjects I was hired to teach — American history, composition, and college readiness. My hope is that these films will encourage my students to connect today’s police violence to our nation’s history of racial injustice. And, because there are no easy answers, they’ll simply be encouraged by the perseverance of those who came before them.

I can’t help but worry I’m sending them mixed messages, however, teaching them lessons on resistance while also policing their conduct day to day. As an administrator and one of few black male teachers in my school, I’m often charged with disciplining students. I find myself having a familiar talk with many of them: “get good grades,” “respect authority,” “keep your nose clean.”

It’s instruction and advice that can feel pointless when a “good kid” like Jordan Edwards can have his life cut short by those sworn to serve and protect him. Still, I try in hopes that good grades and polite behavior will insulate my students from some of society’s dangers, if not all of them.

The Monday after police killed Edwards, I asked the students in my college readiness class to watch a news clip about the shooting and write out their feelings, or sit in silence and reflect. Many of them were already aware of what happened. I was proud that so many of them were abreast of the news but saddened by their reflections. At just 14 and 15 years old, many of them have already come to accept deaths like Jordan’s as the norm, and readily expect that any one of them could be next. “Will this police officer even be fired?” one asked. “Was the cop white?”

The young man I worry about the most was more talkative than usual that day. During the class discussion, he shared his guilt of being the only one of his friends who “made it” — making it meaning being alive, still, and free. The guilt sometimes cripples him, he said, and high-profile police killings like Jordan’s compound that guilt with a feeling of hopelessness. They make him think he will die in the streets one way or another.

I didn’t know what to say then, and I still don’t have a response for him. I’ve always taught students that earning an education might exempt them from the perils of being black in America, or at least give them a chance at something more. I was raised on that notion and believed it so much that I became an educator. But deaths like Jordan’s leave me choking on the reality that nothing I can teach will shield my students from becoming the next hashtag.

In lieu of protection, I offer what I can. I provide a space for my students to express their feelings. I offer love and consideration in our day-to-day interactions and do my best to make them feel seen and, hopefully, safe for a few hours each day.

Fredrick Scott Salyers teaches at a charter high school in Brooklyn. He began his career in education as a resident director at Morehouse College. Find more of his work here.