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

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.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.