First Person

The Right To Know What?

Each fall, thousands of runners descend on the Big Apple to run the New York City marathon. They’ve trained hard all year, and give their all on the course. Long after the elite runners have finished, they stream across the finish line in clumps, exhausted at the end of their 26.2-mile journey. In the middle of the pack, as many as eight or 10 runners might cross the finish line in a single second, and nearly 400 in a single minute.

The difference between a time of 4:08:00 and 4:09:00, however, isn’t large enough to be important. It’s the difference between a rate of 9:28 per mile and 9:30 per mile. Given the vagaries of marathon running — the wind, the temperature, the features of the course — it would be unwise to conclude that the runner who crossed the finish line in 4:08:00 is a much better marathoner than the one who finished in 4:09:00.

But the runner with a time of 4:08:00 finished several hundred places ahead of the runner who finished in 4:09:00 — surely that counts for something! Not really, I’d say. We can quantify the difference, both in absolute terms and in relative position, but these differences are not large enough to be meaningful.

The same is true of the information in the Teacher Data Reports recently released in New York City. Small differences in the estimated effects of teachers on their students’ achievement can appear to be much larger, because most teachers are about equally successful with the assortment of students they teach in a given year, regardless of whether those students begin the year as low-achievers or high-achievers. A trivial difference can appear much larger than it actually is, because, like the marathoners, many teachers are “crossing the finish line” at about the same time.

Here’s an example drawn from the 2008-09 Teacher Data Reports. (I chose the example because it’s convenient and have no reason to believe it’s unusual.) In 2009, fifth-graders took New York State’s English Language Arts exam, which consisted of 24 multiple-choice test items and three constructed-response items, which were combined to create a raw score ranging from 0 to 31. The raw scores were then converted to scale scores, which were used to classify individual students into four levels of performance, with Level 3 representing grade-level proficiency. The average student in New York City got 25.5 raw score points out of 31, which in New York City’s scheme represented an average proficiency level of 3.29. (Sounds pretty good, right? Of course, this was before the state wised up that being proficient on the test didn’t mean a student was on track to graduate from high school ready for college.)

The logic of the city’s Teacher Data Reports is to estimate Teacher A’s contribution to his or her students’ test-scores by comparing how other students with the same measured characteristics would be expected to do on the state test, based on their prior achievement and individual and classroom characteristics, with how Teacher A’s students actually did on the test. If Teacher A’s students score at the same level as was predicted by a statistical model, Teacher A is claimed to not “add value” to her students. If Teacher B’s students perform better than expected, Teacher B is said to add value. (And poor Teacher C, whose students score lower than they are predicted to do, is subtracting value, I guess. Maybe we should call him Teacher F.) These “value-added” scores are then ranked, and a teacher is assigned a percentile value representing the percentage of other teachers teaching the same grade and subject who scored below he or she did.

An “average” teacher, according to this calculation, is one whose value-added score is 0. Of the 1,751 NYC teachers with three or more years of experience who received a value-added rating in fifth-grade English in 2008-09, 84 got a score that rounded to .00. Their percentile ratings—the number that’s getting all of the attention in the traditional and neo-tabloids—range from 53 to 58. A tiny shift of .01 in either direction yields an additional 152 teachers, and a percentile rating of 48 to 63. What seems to be a small range of value-added scores could be anywhere from the 48th to the 63th percentile, because the value-added scores in this range are clumped together.

But it’s hard to know whether a shift of .01 in either direction is large or small. How can we tell? Here’s an idea. Suppose that Ruiz had 20 students who took the fifth-grade English test in 2009, and they were at the city average of 25.5 out of 31 raw score points on the test. What if half of the students got one more question right on the test? Doesn’t seem like a big stretch, does it? Just like the variation in the conditions on marathon day, half of the students getting one more question correct on a given test on a given day doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility.

If this were to happen, Ruiz’s value-added score would rise from 0 to .05. And the percentile range associated with a value-added score of .05 is 75 to 77. All of a sudden, an “average” teacher looks pretty good. And this isn’t due to the margin of error! It’s just because many teachers are about equally effective in promoting student achievement, according to the value-added model in use. A relatively small change in student performance shifts a teacher’s location in the value-added distribution by a surprisingly large amount.

To be sure, this example is based on one year of student test-score data, not multiple years. But that’s what New York State is proposing to rely on in its first year of the new Annual Professional Performance Review process, and it’s what other jurisdictions, such as Washington, D.C., use in their teacher-evaluation systems. And, as with the marathon, the clumping together of teachers is more of an issue in the middle of the distribution than among those in the lead or at the back of the pack. But that’s little consolation to the teachers whose percentile rankings will figure into annual evaluations that will determine whether they’re permitted to continue teaching.

Speaking at Coney Island Feb. 28, Mayor Bloomberg defiantly affirmed the public’s right to know the contents of teachers’ performance evaluations. “Parents have a right to know every bit of information that we can possibly collect about the teacher that’s in front of their kids,” he said.

That statement is utterly ridiculous. There’s no legitimate interest in information about teachers’ private lives if it has no bearing on their professional performance. But here’s something parents do have the right to know: just how fragile value-added measures based on the New York State testing system are. The New York State tests were never intended to be used to rate teachers’ contributions to student learning — and so it’s little wonder they do a pretty poor job of it.

This post also appears on Eye on Education, Aaron Pallas’s Hechinger Report blog.

First Person

How I navigated New York City’s high school admissions maze in a wheelchair

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Students at the citywide high school fair at Brooklyn Technical High School.

Public school was something I had been thinking about for years. It seemed like an impossibility when I was younger. Reliant on a wheelchair due to cerebral palsy, I was too disabled. So many didn’t have an elevator. How could I keep up?

So for the last eight years, I have been at the Henry Viscardi School. It is a private school for kids with severe disabilities. The majority of the students are in wheelchairs and many use assistive technology to communicate, as I do. I am nonverbal, which means I cannot speak, so I use computers and switches to write.

While Henry Viscardi is a good school, as I went through middle school, I felt like I had plateaued in what I was learning. I was bored in school and it wasn’t fun. So I approached my parents about going to a public high school. My mom has been very involved in the educational world, serving on different committees throughout my life. She could also tell it was time for me to go to public school, but she knew it would be a difficult road.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Abraham Weitzman
The technology Weitzman uses to communicate

Most kids start to look at high schools by picking up the big book of high schools the Department of Education gives out. That wouldn’t work for me. Probably 80 percent of those schools couldn’t work based solely on accessibility.

I wanted a small school, a shorter bus ride, and academics that would prepare me for an Ivy League college. My siblings wanted a safe school because I am vulnerable. My dad said we needed the right principal. My mom used the School Finder app and found about five schools that might work.

I went to the high school fair with my brother, Izzy, and my best friend, Oriana. It was a maddening experience. We needed to go in the back entrance because it had the ramp. The specialized high schools were down a few steps, but we found another ramp. I wasn’t going to take the SHSAT [specialized high school admissions test], but Izzy and Ori were interested, and we always stay together. We found our friend Mav there too.

After we had our fill of the crowd, we got on line for the elevator to the Queens floor. We were welcomed wherever we went.

Everybody said I could go to their school. It felt good, but I knew they didn’t all have what I needed or what I wanted. Tired, we visited the Manhattan floor but gave up before we hit the other boroughs. My mom had a cocktail at lunch.

After the fair, I visited School of the Future with my parents and my assistant, and I thought it was perfect. The kids seemed nice. They didn’t stare and they made room on the ramp. I met the teachers and the principal. The classes and clubs sounded interesting. Bathroom? Fail! My wheelchair didn’t fit and my mom had to carry me into the stall. Clearly this was a problem.

I was disappointed, but my parents had another plan. They wanted me to apply for Bard High School Early College Queens. I don’t like standardized tests because my disability makes me tired before I can finish, so I never do well. My mom worked with Bard to make sure the test was printed large with one question per page. Bard gave me quadruple time over two days. I was able to finish all of the test parts. I cannot speak, so I interviewed by email. Bathroom? Awesome! Plenty of room and privacy. I ranked Bard first and waited.

This week my letter came. I’ll be going to Bard in September. It is exciting to think of all the people I’ll meet and the courses I’ll take. I know the workload will be much greater and I will be the only nonverbal person in the building. Mom, I’m ready.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.