First Person

19 Months Of Stalling By The NYC Education Department

This post also appeared on The Hechinger Report’s Eye on Education blog.

It’s nearly springtime, when a young man’s fancy turns to thoughts of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). At least in odd-numbered years. I’m not so young, but lately I’ve been thinking about NAEP, which is widely regarded as the best barometer of changes over time in the academic performance of U.S. students. No assessment can do all that we ask of it, but NAEP is a well-designed project supported by $130 million per year in federal funds.

Though not a substitute for careful evaluations of particular programs and policies, NAEP does crop up frequently in education policy circles. In New York state and New York City, for example, the discrepancy between trends in performance on the fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math NAEP tests (which were largely flat between 2007 and 2009) and the performance of the same population of students on the state’s own annual assessments (which skyrocketed over the same period) led New York state to change the threshold for student proficiency in 2010, and to make the state tests more challenging and less predictable.

The disparity also called into question Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s and Chancellor Joel Klein’s claims about progress in student performance and closing the city’s achievement gaps. There’s little doubt that the mayor and chancellor were annoyed with pesky reporters and bloggers using NAEP scores to poke holes in their claims.

This led me to speculate about how they might have responded. If you believe that tests are de facto measures of student learning, and that therefore test prep and teaching to the test are to be encouraged rather than vilified, why not do test prep for NAEP? It’s probably not illegal—although test prep for NAEP would certainly distort comparisons of performance over time and across urban school districts. Might Joel Klein, in the waning days of his tenure as chancellor in 2010, have put in place a NAEP test prep initiative for the Spring 2011 NAEP administration in New York City?

I don’t know. But I figured I could ask. So in July 2011, I filed a request for public records with the New York City Department of Education. New York state, as is true of most places, has enacted a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) that provides public access to most records maintained by public agencies, to support an open and responsible government. There are, of course, records that are exempt from disclosure, such as those pertaining to trade secrets or those that would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.

I wasn’t asking for anything like that, and an agency can always redact anything it deems irrelevant to the request or inappropriate to disclose. (This is why so much of Joel Klein’s email correspondence released in response to FOIL requests consists of blacked-out pages.) I was fairly specific in my requests, asking for email communications and letters among Department of Education (DOE) personnel relating to preparing students to take the 2011 NAEP assessments, including test preparation materials, memoranda, directives and/or instructions issued to central DOE personnel and/or personnel at elementary and/or middle schools regarding the policies and procedures for preparation for, and administration of, the 2011 NAEP assessments in New York City. There were a few other specific requests, and I followed guidance from successful requests in crafting the language of the letter. For example, I asked that the DOE disclose records as soon as they were identified rather than wait to gather all records.

New York’s FOIL law requires that an agency respond within five days to a reasonably described record request, and either (a) make the records available; (b) deny the request in writing; or (c) if it is unable to respond to the request within 20 business days, state in writing both the reason for the inability to grant the request within 20 business days and a reasonable, specific date when the request will be granted in whole or in part.

But the New York City DOE routinely fails to comply with this provision of the law.

Every month, I receive a letter that reads: “Pursuant to Section VI.B of Chancellor’s Regulation D-110, due to the volume and complexity of requests we receive and process, and to determine whether any records or portions thereof will be subject to redactions permitted under Public Officers Law 87-2, additional time is required to respond substantively to your request. Accordingly, a response is currently anticipated by [date],” where the date given is one month in the future. And, when that date rolls around, I get the next month’s letter, identical except for a new anticipated date.

My initial reaction was that this Chancellor’s Regulation must be pretty powerful to trump state law. But the regulation simply states how the NYC DOE is to comply with the FOIL law. Section VI.B pertains to responses to FOIL requests, particularly the responsibility of the Central Records Access Officer to determine a reasonable amount of time in which to grant the request. State regulations do allow the volume of requests and their complexity to be taken into account in determining a reasonable time.

But neither the FOIL law nor the Chancellor’s Regulation that must adhere to it allows an agency to delay a response indefinitely. I requested these records 19 months ago, and still have no idea when, if ever, the DOE will grant access to them, as the law requires.

I’m not alone in this situation. Advocates for Children of New York and the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund filed an unsuccessful lawsuit seeking to compel the DOE to comply with a series of FOIL requests to which the DOE only partially responded. Their case showed the same pattern of monthly unilateral delays in responding.

Fernanda Santos, former New York Times beat reporter for the city schools, just got a partial response to a FOIL request she filed 26 months ago. Santos is now the Phoenix bureau chief for The Times, but she’s passed the information on to her successor, Al Baker. And, outside of New York, journalist John Merrow, whom I respect greatly, has been stymied in his efforts to get to the bottom of how the District of Columbia Public Schools responded to allegations of test cheating under Chancellor Michelle Rhee. District of Columbia agencies have not responded to his FOIA requests from nearly eight months ago for a memo that is known to exist.

The obvious counterpoint to this record of delays in New York City and Washington, D.C. is how the NYC DOE responded to the FOIL requests submitted in October 2010 by many New York media organizations for public release of the Teacher Data Reports, the city’s version of value-added measures of teachers’ performance. Despite the complexity of the request, the DOE was prepared to respond the day after the request—and maybe even the day before.

Public agencies shouldn’t be able to pick and choose which requests for public information they respond to, escalating some while stalling on others. It’s antithetical to the spirit and letter of the law, which exists to promote openness, responsiveness and trust in our political institutions.

Did New York City put its thumb on the scale by engaging in test prep for NAEP? Are officials hiding the presence of their thumb? We don’t know, because the DOE has not released any relevant records in the past 19 months. In the meantime, the 2013 NAEP administration is already under way.

Thumbs down on public transparency and accountability.

First Person

Two fewer testing days in New York? Thank goodness. Here’s what else our students need

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

Every April, I feel the tension in my fifth-grade classroom rise. Students are concerned that all of their hard work throughout the year will boil down to six intense days of testing — three for math and three for English language arts.

Students know they need to be prepared to sit in a room for anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours with no opportunity to leave, barring an emergency. Many of them are sick to their stomachs, feeling more stress than a 10-year-old ever should, and yet they are expected to perform their best.

Meanwhile, teachers are frustrated that so many hours of valuable instruction have been replaced by testing, and that the results won’t be available until students are moving on to other classrooms.

This is what testing looks like in New York state. Or, at least it did. Last month, state officials voted to reduce testing from three days for each subject to two, to the elation of students, parents, and teachers across New York. It’s an example of our voices being heard — but there is still more to be done to make the testing process truly useful, and less stressful, for all of us.

As a fifth-grade teacher in the Bronx, I was thrilled by the news that testing time would be reduced. Though it doesn’t seem like much on paper, having two fewer days of gut-wrenching stress for students as young as eight means so much for their well-being and education. It gives students two more days of classroom instruction, interactive lessons, and engagement in thought-provoking discussions. Any reduction in testing also means more time with my students, since administrators can pull teachers out of their classrooms for up to a week to score each test.

Still, I know these tests provide us with critical data about how students are doing across our state and where we need to concentrate our resources. The changes address my worries about over-testing, while still ensuring that we have an objective measure of what students have learned across the state.

For those who fear that cutting one-third of the required state testing hours will not provide teachers with enough data to help our students, understand that we assess them before, during, and after each unit of study, along with mid-year tests and quizzes. It is unlikely that one extra day of testing will offer any significant additional insights into our students’ skills.

Also, the fact that we receive students’ state test results months later, at the end of June, means that we are more likely to have a snapshot of where are students were, rather than where they currently are — when it’s too late for us to use the information to help them.

That’s where New York can still do better. Teachers need timely data to tailor their teaching to meet student needs. As New York develops its next generation of tests and academic standards, we must ensure that they are developmentally appropriate. And officials need to continue to emphasize that state tests alone cannot fully assess a student’s knowledge and skills.

For this, parents and teachers must continue to demand that their voices are heard. Until then, thank you, New York Regents, for hearing us and reducing the number of testing days.

In my classroom, I’ll have two extra days to help my special needs students work towards the goals laid out in their individualized education plans. I’ll take it.

Rich Johnson teaches fifth grade at P.S. 105 in the Bronx.

First Person

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

High schools have become obsessed with “million-dollar scholars,” and it’s hurting students.

Across Memphis, students often are pushed by counselors to apply to as many colleges as possible — as many as 100 — all to push students to reach that million-dollar scholarship mark. The more dollars and college acceptance, the better!

I graduated in 2016, and my experience offers a case study.

I’m a pretty well-rounded individual: In high school, I was a finalist in the Let’s Innovate Through Education program and was able to launch SousChef-Memphis, a culinary nonprofit organization. I was a dual-enrollment student and took honors courses. I was committed to community service. I was vice president of my high school organization, Modern Distinctive Ladies. I was on the bowling team, managed the basketball team, and participated in debate forensics and drama.

I was also told by counselors to apply to 100 colleges. I was never told why that number was chosen, but my peers were told the same. We were often pulled out of class to complete these applications, which took away from instructional time — about an hour per day. My high school also ran on an infraction system, and not turning in college applications and other documents led to disciplinary actions.

The quality of those applications only shed a dim light on the student and person that I am. A hundred applications was never my goal. A hundred applications doesn’t measure the capability, intelligence or worth of me as a student. A hundred applications is just ridiculous!

Schools with similar approaches, though, get glowing media coverage. Meanwhile, a lot of that scholarship money is irrelevant, since a single student obviously can only attend one school.

I think that if I had been counseled properly, I would have had a better grasp on my high school-to-college transition. I ultimately chose to leave Memphis to attend another state university on a full scholarship. Looking back, that school was not the best fit for me. I returned to Memphis to attend our local public university.

A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.

I was more than capable of getting back on track, and I did. But not every student can afford to go through what I went through.

High schools need to realize that, while students amassing millions of dollars in scholarships and hundreds of college acceptance letters seems like an accomplishment, the outcome for many students is the total opposite.

Too many students end up not going to a school that is the best fit for them, taking on piles of debt, and dropping out with no workforce experience.

The goal should be that each high school student will graduate having a grasp on their career path (and experience in that field), scholarships to the school of their choice (full rides or little to no debt), and be confident in where they will be spending the next four to six years of their life. Being thorough in the college search and submitting quality applications is what leads to a college that is the best fit for the student, obtaining scholarships, and ultimately graduating.

Here’s what I wish a counselor had told me:

"It is time to start thinking about quality over quantity. Quality counseling. Quality applications. And quality choices about what to do next."Anisah Karim

Try things you like, but don’t overload yourself. Look for summer internships that pay, rather than minimum-wage jobs. Build a network of people who can help you make good decisions about college and work. Research schools with a major you’re interested in, and find out what scholarships they offer. Keep an eye on your GPA and make sure you’re taking the classes you need to graduate. Apply for colleges when applications open and submit the FAFSA form in October.

And most importantly, through all four years of high school, don’t be afraid to ask for help.

It is time to start thinking about quality over quantity. Quality counseling. Quality applications. And quality choices about what to do next.

Anisah Karim is a psychology student at the University of Memphis. She plans to continue her education in speech pathology and otology and eventually start her own private practice. She also plans to launch two new business ventures in the fall and relaunch SousChef in the fall of 2018.