First Person

Voices: Santa Claus and standardized tests

Author Angela Engel says standardized tests only serve to widen the divide between students of means and those who are lacking resources.

When I was a little girl I believed that a fat bearded man climbed down my chimney and delivered my dreams wrapped in red and green paper under our family Christmas tree. When I was grown and knew the truth, I passed the belief to my young daughters because it is tradition and because hope is a beautiful thing.

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BigStock.com

High-stakes standardized tests are a lot like Santa. We think we have a magical way to deliver intelligence and responsibility – like the myth, “If you are good, you get presents.” Kids today are taught to believe “if you color in the right bubbles, you get something, like a college education followed by a high paying job.” Some lies are as harmless as a tooth fairy. But other lies have the power to wound.

For the parent who does not have the means to wrap their child’s hope in shiny ribbons and place them neatly underneath an ornamented tree, the tale of Christmas can be a curse. For the little girl who wakes up on Dec. 25 to discover that all the toys in the stores and television miracles were delivered to other children, Santa is a bitter disappointment. It is a torment for the little boy who wakes up Christmas morning to an empty refrigerator and wonders if it happened because he is a bad boy.

How well a child scores on a standardized test is correlated to their parent’s income, not the size of their brain, nor the quality of their school. Like the story of Santa, millions of parents perpetuate this lie because, however false, test scores feel like a badge of achievement. The Pearson or McGraw Hill label of “above proficient” or “proficient” simply makes them feel good. It’s hard to challenge the things that make us feel good, even if those same things are an injustice to others.

On June 1, 1999, the U.S. Department of Education agreed with Debra Gaudette after the Connecticut State Department of Education refused to provide her daughter’s test answers on the Connecticut Mastery Test (CMT).  The Department of Education ruled that the Connecticut State Department of Education violated Gaudette’s parental rights under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) in denying her access to the test information.

When his daughter was denied her diploma, Martin Swaden of Edina, Minn., asked to see his daughter’s answers from the test used to determine who graduates from high school. Initially, the state refused his request but Swaden, an attorney, persisted by threatening to sue the school district. When finally given the test and his daughter’s answer sheet, Swaden sat in a room with state officials and found his daughter had correctly answered six questions that the National Computer Systems, NCS, had scored wrong. Had NCS scored her correctly it would have been enough to raise her above the score required for graduation. When it was all over, the state determined that errors by NCS had caused 47,000 Minnesota students to get lower scores than they deserved, 8,000 to fail when they should have passed, and 525 seniors to be unjustly denied diplomas.

Errors in standardized tests are common and far less rampant than recognized because test publishers like Pearson and McGraw Hill operate privately without public accountability or education oversight. An independent audit of the Florida FCAT identified an error in 2006 Third Grade Reading Test described as an “accidental misplacement of ‘anchor’ questions.” The FCAT is used as the measure to retain thousands of Florida third-graders.

This year Elizabeth Phillips, principal of PS 321 in New York City, wrote a letter to John B. King Jr., education commissioner of New York State, expressing concern over flawed test questions that included an eighth grade language test featuring a talking pineapple with no correct answers.

“The idea that teachers may lose their jobs and schools may be closed based on how children do on these problematic exams is incredibly upsetting and demoralizing to educators…I hope that you will consider recommending to the State Legislature that given the flaws in the tests, we are not yet ready to use them for high stakes decision making,” according to an article on Care2.com.

These multiple choice tests are used every day to make high stakes decisions in student placement and retention, whether a teacher keeps their job or gets a raise, and which schools stay open and which schools close. It is no mistake that every “turnaround” school has served low-income and minority children. This model of standardization and high-stakes testing has perpetuated education inequities. Children of lower-income families have traded teachers, art, music, computers, after-school programs, counselors, athletics, and prevention services for Scantron test sheets. Their wealthy counterparts in higher-income areas learn Chinese, violin and how to access information globally.

High-stakes tests have thus served to widen both the achievement gap and the opportunity gap between the rich and the poor. Under this feigned banner of “accountability” America’s growing caste system has once again been legitimized; teaching white wealthy children to think smarter and poor colored children to work harder. High-stakes standardized tests are a lie. A lie, similar to the North Pole tale, that rewards high income children and denies low income children of the most important gift: a meaningful education.

First Person

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.