First Person

Why NAEP Matters

NYC Chancellor Joel Klein’s response in Wednesday’s New York Times to Diane Ravitch’s op-ed last week provides a lot to chew on.  Today, I’m focusing on his comments about the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which is also known as the Nation’s Report Card.  NAEP began collecting data in 1969, and remains the only federal assessment designed to report on trends in the academic performance of U.S. children and youth.  All 50 states and the District of Columbia participate in NAEP, as does New York City and an increasing number of other urban school districts.  NAEP has an annual operating budget of more than $130 million per year, which represents a significant share of federal investments in education research.  Though not an expert on testing and assessment, Diane Ravitch has a long-standing interest in NAEP—she was appointed to the bipartisan National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB), which oversees NAEP, during President Bill Clinton’s second term, and remained on the board until 2004.

One of the ways that NAEP differs from many other standardized tests is that NAEP is designed to yield a much wider picture of the subject-matter knowledge the test is intended to measure.  Many standardized tests are designed to provide an accurate picture of a particular child’s performance.  It’s efficient to do so by having all test-takers respond to the same set of test items.  If a group of fourth-graders all answer the same 45 items in a 90-minute math exam, we can learn a lot about performance on those particular items, which are chosen to be representative of the content domain they are supposed to represent (such as fourth-grade math).  But such a test would tell us little about student performance on other items that might have a different format, or address different fourth-grade math skills.  NAEP addresses this problem by having many more test items, but no child answers all of the items, because that would take hours and hours of testing time.  Instead, each child responds to a sample of the items, and the performance on these items is combined across children to yield a picture of the performance of children in general.  Testing experts such as Dan Koretz at Harvard believe that assessments such as NAEP are less vulnerable to score inflation than state assessments because it’s more challenging to engage in inappropriate test preparation when there are so many potential test items a student might respond to.  But the tradeoff is that NAEP is not designed to provide a reliable and accurate measure of performance for a particular child.   

Let’s look at what the Chancellor had to say about NAEP:

“The national tests [Ravitch] cites are not the measure of federal accountability, are given only to a small sample of schools, and are not aligned with New York State standards and therefore with what we teach in our classrooms. (That said, our fourth-grade scores on those tests are strong.)”

Not the measure of federal accountability.  The No Child Left Behind Act delegated to states the responsibility of developing systems of learning standards and assessments designed to measure progress towards universal student proficiency by 2014.  It’s true that the tests that are used to assess the performance of the New York City schools for NCLB purposes are state assessments, not NAEP.  But it is misleading to say that NAEP is not a measure of federal accountability.  The tests administered by the 50 states vary considerably in their difficulty, with some states reporting much higher rates of student proficiency than are indicated by student performance on the NAEP assessment.  In New York City, 56% of fourth-graders in 2007 were judged proficient on the New York state English Language Arts test, whereas only 25% reached proficiency on the NAEP reading assessment.  New York City and New York State are by no means distinctive in finding much higher rates of proficiency on state tests than on NAEP—many states have even larger disparities—but the unevenness of the proficiency standards across states, and the fact that state tests change frequently over time, has led Congress and the U.S. Department of Education to rely on NAEP as the primary measure of trends in the performance of American schoolchildren over time.  Moreover, Education Secretary Arne Duncan has recently advised state superintendents that they should report state NAEP performance in their state and district report cards documenting performance under NCLB.  In these ways, NAEP is very much a measure of federal accountability. 

Given only to a small sample of schools.  For the life of me, I can’t figure out why the Chancellor thinks this is relevant.  A well-designed sample will yield estimates of student performance that are unbiased and accurate, and the New York City sample is designed by leading statisticians to be representative of the population of New York City students and large enough to detect meaningful differences between New York City and other jurisdictions, as well as meaningful differences over time.  

Not aligned with New York State standards and therefore with what we teach in our classrooms.  It would seem unfair for New York City schoolchildren to spend the year studying Shakespeare, and then be assessed on their knowledge of contemporary American fiction.  In reality, the curricular content of NAEP and the New York State assessments doesn’t diverge that much.  For example, in eighth-grade mathematics, the state specifies 104 distinct standards in the arenas of problem-solving, reasoning and proof, communication, connections, representation, number sense and operations, algebra, geometry, and measurement.  (Keep in mind that these 104 standards are assessed via only 45 test items.)  The NAEP framework allocates test items to number properties and operations (20%), measurement (15%), geometry (20%), data analysis and probability (15%), and algebra (30%).  I’m not going to do a detailed comparison, but I invite readers to look at the NAEP standards and see if they represent content that you think is unimportant for eighth-graders to know.      

Our fourth-grade scores on those tests are strong.  Surely the Chancellor must know that, when a test is administered in both the fourth and eighth grade, and he claims that the fourth-grade results are “strong,” and says nothing about the eighth grade, a reasonable person might wonder about the eighth-grade results.  In fact, there have been no statistically significant gains in eighth-grade performance in New York City in either reading or math between 2003 and 2007 on the NAEP assessment, and no gains in fourth-grade reading either.  Fourth-grade scores in New York City are “strong” only in the sense that there were significant gains in fourth-grade math performance from 2003 to 2007. 

A final note:  New York City has been participating voluntarily in the NAEP Trial Urban District Assessment since 2002, so presumably the Chancellor believes that there is something to be learned from the performance of New York City’s children on the NAEP assessments.  And the Department of Education’s press office has had no qualms about crowing about NAEP results when the Department believes there is good news to share.  But a Department, and a Chancellor, truly committed to transparency would be willing to acknowledge the bad with the good, and present a balanced picture of successes and failures.  Writing off NAEP as if it doesn’t matter fails to meet that standard.

First Person

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on, where this post first appeared.

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.