First Person

The Envelope, Please: Checking My Common Core Math

Ten weeks ago, I made some predictions about New York City’s 2013 proficiency rates on the New York State English Language Arts and mathematics assessments — the first New York tests to be aligned with the challenging Common Core State Standards adopted (more or less) by about 45 states across the country. I relied on just two bits of information: (1) New York City’s 2012 proficiency rates; and (2) what happened in Kentucky when it shifted from its previous assessments to Common Core-aligned assessments. The predictions were not based on any knowledge of the specifics of the new assessments in New York, or what the Big Apple’s teachers were doing in their classrooms.

How did I do? The two charts below tell the tale. The first displays proficiency rates on the English Language Arts assessments in grades 3-8, overall and for particular demographic subgroups. The blue column is the 2012 proficiency rate; the red column is my prediction for 2013; and the yellow column is the actual proficiency rate in 2013. I underestimated overall proficiency by a bit, predicting that 22 percent of students in grades 3-8 would be classified as proficient, when in fact 26 percent fell into that category. But I was within one percentage point for black and Latino students, English language learners, and students with disabilities.

ELA-2013

In math, shown in the second chart, my prediction for 2013 was almost on the mark, as I had predicted a proficiency rate of 31 percent, and the actual rate was 30 percent. I wasn’t quite as accurate with the subgroups in math; I overestimated the percent of black and Latino students who would be classified as proficient by five percentage points, but missed the mark by only two or three percentage points for all of the other groups displayed in the chart.

Math-2013

What do my powers of prognostication mean? (Other than my opening a storefront on 72nd Street, where I will be happy to read your palm for $15…)

What my parlor trick reveals is that the distribution of scores on the new Common Core-aligned tests in New York is not news at all. And yet many people are behaving as though this is some seismic shift in education policy and practice. Of course, they are bringing their distinctive points of view to bear on their interpretations. Former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, for example, sees good news in the fact that the policies he championed for nearly a decade have resulted in fewer than one in five black and Latino students being classified as proficient in English Language Arts and mathematics. “While some may use lower test results to score political points and argue that we should abandon higher standards,” he intones, “this would do our kids a grave injustice.” Better, I guess, that we should use lower test results to score political points and argue that we should embrace higher standards.

And irrepressible Mayor Michael Bloomberg has no qualms about declaring victory whether scores increase, stay the same, or go down. The low proportions of city children classified as proficient “actually is some very good news,” he said, blaming the media for “not understanding the numbers.”

Here’s the dirty little secret: No one truly understands the numbers. We are behaving as though the sorting of students into four proficiency categories based on a couple of days of tests tells us something profound about our schools, our teachers, and our children. There are many links in the chain of inference that can carry us from those few days in April to claims about the health of our school system or the effectiveness of our teachers. And many of those links have yet to be scrutinized.

Does Mayor Bloomberg understand the numbers? Perhaps he’d care to share with us the percentage of children in each grade who ran out of time and didn’t attempt all of the test items, and the consequences of that for students’ scores. Or how well the pattern of students’ answers fit the complex psychometric models used to estimate a student’s proficiency. Or how precisely a child’s scale score measures his or her performance. Or how many test items had to be discarded because they didn’t work the way they were intended. Or what fraction of the Common Core standards was included on this year’s English and math tests — and what was left out.

These are just some of the factors in the production of the proficiency rates that have been the subject of so much attention. And the properties of the test are just one link in the chain.

Since I’m so good at prognostication: I predict that state test scores, in New York and elsewhere, will continue to be used as a basis for important policy decisions, despite the fact that test scores tell us just a little bit about the things we care about.

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

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.