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

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.