First Person

Randomness is Not a Fluke

“I think there’s nothing wrong with anything.”  So spoke Chancellor Joel Klein at yesterday’s release of the 2009 elementary and middle school progress reports.  As Anna Phillips reported, 84% of the schools received a letter grade of A, and an additional 13% received a B.  Only two schools out of 1,058 received an F, and just five more were awarded a D.

The letter grades were driven by the remarkable/suspicious gains in 2009 on the state’s ELA and math tests.  Schools weren’t actually compared to one another on their performance this year to derive the letter grades.  Rather, they were compared to last year’s peer and citywide benchmarks.  To use a football metaphor, because test scores rose across the board, virtually all schools moved up the field, but the goalposts didn’t move.  I wasn’t sure that the progress report letter grades could actually be less useful this year than last, but Chancellor Klein’s administration has achieved that dubious feat.  When 84% of the schools receive an A—the top grade, which everyone understands to signify excellence—what useful information about the school’s relative performance is being conveyed to parents, students, educators, and others with a stake in our schools?  Not much, in my view.

Last year, my blogging partner Jennifer Jennings (who, for those keeping score at home, is now Dr. J) and I were sharply critical of the 2008 school progress reports.  Writing on Jennifer’s eduwonkette site, we demonstrated that student achievement growth over the past year—which makes up 60% of the overall progress report letter grade—was highly unreliable.  Schools that demonstrated high gains in student achievement from 2006 to 2007 were no more likely to show gains from 2007 to 2008 than schools that showed low gains in 2006 to 2007.  We concluded that the measure of student progress making up 60% of the overall progress report grade was picking up chance fluctuations from year to year.  And if 60% of the score is random, there’s not much genuine information about school performance in the progress report grade.

It wasn’t a fluke.

I’ve now replicated our analysis using the 2009 progress report grades.  Many measures of school performance—its environment, based on parent and teacher surveys, its attendance, even the percentage of students achieving Level 3 or Level 4 on the state ELA and math tests—are fairly stable from year to year.  But once again, the student progress measure is wholly unpredictable.  The schools that showed big gains in student achievement from 2007 to 2008 were no more likely to show big gains from 2008 to 2009 than those schools that had small gains from 2007 to 2008. 

Here are some simple graphical representations, using the roughly 600 elementary schools in New York City that received progress report grades in 2008 and 2009.  The first graph plots a school’s academic expectations in 2009, based on surveys, with that school’s academic expectations in 2008.  There is a strong positive correlation of .75, which indicates a great deal of stability from 2008 to 2009 in the relative position of a school compared to other schools.


The second graph plots a school’s attendance rate in 2009 with that school’s attendance rate in 2008.  Attendance is highly stable from year to year:  the correlation between 2008 attendance and 2009 attendance is .95.  There’s almost as much consistency in the percentage of students scoring at levels 3 or 4 on the state ELA test over these two years.  The correlation between the 2008 percentage and the 2009 percentage is .94, which is a very strong association indicating that schools that are relatively high in 2008 are likely to be relatively high in 2009.    


As you look at the three graphs above, you can see a clear pattern in the data:  elementary schools that are relatively low compared to other schools in 2008 are also relatively low compared to their peers in 2009.  Similarly, elementary schools that are relatively high compared to other schools in 2008 are likely to be relatively high in comparison to other schools in 2009.  Now, look at the graph below, which plots each school’s student progress from 2008 to 2009 by that school’s progress from 2007 to 2008.  Do you see a pattern?


 If you do, there’s probably a psychologist somewhere salivating at the idea of administering a Rohrschach inkblot test to you.  The correlation between student progress from 2007 to 2008 and student progress from 2008 to 2009 is -.02, which is indistinguishable from zero.  This means that there really is no pattern to the results, and certainly not a pattern that demonstrates consistency or stability from one year to the next.

It’s no surprise to see this, since it follows from what we know about the instability of test score gains from one year to the next in schools across the country.  As was true last year, there’s a bit more consistency in progress in math, but the state ELA and math tests on which these scores are based are coming under increasing scrutiny for their predictability, easiness, and poor content coverage.  The New York City Department of Education has hitched its accountability wagon to a runaway horse.

When it comes to annual test score gains, randomness is not a fluke.

First Person

I spoke with our governor during his TNReady listening tour. Here’s what I hope he heard.

Tara Baker raises her hand to talk during Gov. Bill Haslam's Sept. 4 roundtable discussion about state testing challenges. An assistant principal at Nashville's McGavock High School, Baker was among about 150 educators invited to participate in Haslam's six-stop "listening tour," which began Aug. 31 in Knoxville and ends Sept. 18 in Gibson County.

As the testing coordinator for a large high school in Nashville, I was in the eye of the proverbial storm this spring as tens of thousands of Tennessee students slogged through technical snafus and breakdowns in the state’s return to online testing.

It was ugly.

The daily stops and starts sucked the joy of learning right out of our school community. And the testing platform was not the only thing that broke down. Students were frustrated to the point of tears after their hard work disappeared behind a spinning blue cursor.

Students and their teachers should never feel that level of exasperation and futility.

That’s why I was thrilled to be invited — along with about 150 other educators from across Tennessee — to troubleshoot testing problems with Gov. Bill Haslam this month during his six-stop “listening tour” on TNReady, the assessment that’s now entering its fourth year.

I wanted the governor and his education commissioner, Candice McQueen, to know just how bad testing went at my school, and to hear observations and ideas from ground zero for moving forward.

I talked about our school’s disappointment and tears as we persevered through a rocky start, with already overtested students exasperated by what felt like unending technical difficulties. “They were defeated,” I told the governor. “It crippled us before we really ever got started.”

I shared how only 36 out of 500 students in our English III classes were able to successfully submit their essays for one part of their online exam. Imagine working for over an hour to read and examine an article and construct an in-depth response, only to have your computer freeze or shut down before you could finish. Our sophomores had more success, but we still had almost 150 incomplete submissions in that class after multiple attempts. The stories were similar for students in Integrated Math, Chemistry, and U.S. History. While I can’t know for sure, I believe the intensity of the problems contributed significantly to our school being rated recently at the state’s lowest possible level for academic growth — a devastating blow to me and my colleagues.  

The governor’s 90-minute roundtable discussion, held in a middle school media room in the town of Franklin, was cathartic for many of us present at the fourth listening tour stop. We realized that we were not alone in our frustrations and concerns.

Educators in Middle Tennessee participate in the governor’s fourth roundtable discussion at Freedom Middle School in Franklin.

Gov. Haslam and Commissioner McQueen listened intently, and I was grateful for the opportunity to share my school’s experience. But a lot of ideas and emotions were compressed into a relatively short amount of time. At the end of the day, here’s what I hope they heard:

We spend too much time on testing and not enough on educating students. Teachers talked about using class time to take practice tests in the fall, the long three-week testing window in the spring, and the sheer number of tests that students are required to take.

We should still test; we just have to do it better. Teachers want valid data. We want useful and meaningful feedback. But we need to know that the information provided is a true representation of what our students know. And we should be able to accomplish that with shorter, more thoughtful tests that cut down on subparts, testing times, and the number of questions. The current testing regimen isn’t working. It stresses out our students, teachers, and families.

We are not ready for online assessments in Tennessee. Computer-based testing generates faster results, but it introduces many factors that currently are beyond school or district control. Dead batteries, network updates, lack of internet connectivity and bandwidth — these are not things that schools can regulate with certainty, and they directly impact testing. Most importantly, until we have enough computers so that every student has one-to-one access to a device, we should have other options and school-level contingency plans in place. This could mean having paper backups on hand or quickly available.

Teachers and test administrators need to know the plan! As the link with our stakeholders, we need training to make sure the information that we provide students and parents is correct. It’s our job to promote the assessments to the community but, to do that, we should completely understand the process and be appropriately trained, including what to do when things go wrong.  

Tests need to reflect the diversity of our students. Reading selections should be varied to address students’ abilities, experiences, and lifestyles. For example, Jane Eyre is not relatable to any of my urban high school students. Could we pull from some high-interest contemporary novels, such as Jason Reynolds’ “Long Way Down,” about a black teenager whose brother dies in a shooting?

Gov. Bill Haslam listens during his Sept. 4 roundtable discussion. An advisory team is using the feedback to develop principles and recommendations for consideration by his and the next administration.

This school year, the stakes are higher than ever to get testing right. No one has confidence in last year’s scores or results. How could they when we learned on the third day of testing that the scores wouldn’t count? And this wasn’t our first rodeo with TNReady problems, either. For the new school year, we must get it right to rebuild confidence in the assessment. To the state’s credit, the Department of Education already has made some good moves — for instance, bringing aboard ETS, a reputable testing company, and planning stress tests for online assessments in the fall and spring. I welcome the on-the-ground input of 37 educators serving as our state’s new TNReady ambassadors, as well as steps to improve customer service before and during the next round of testing.

But will it be enough? The above list of concerns represents what I heard at this month’s roundtable discussion and from other educators, too.

Thanks for listening, Gov. Haslam. I hope that yours and the next administration consider this a call to action.

A former English teacher, Tara Baker is an assistant principal at McGavock High School, a 2,400-student learning community in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

First Person

We’ve come a long way in addressing student stress and trauma. I could use help, too.

PHOTO: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

There’s an old adage, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” But as a paraprofessional in Chicago, my cup is almost drained.

Each day, I provide academic, emotional, and behavioral support for over 200 students. The amount of mental and emotional energy it takes to calm a single student down, redirect or remove them from the class, and provide appropriate consequences is overwhelming — even with experience — when there are 11 other six-year-olds in a classroom that need my help.

Related: Chicago teachers, take our back-to-school survey

I look forward to coming to work in the morning, but by the time I get home, I barely have the energy to make my own dinner or plan activities for the next day. I tune out almost everything and everyone. While I love what I do, it is hard.

This heavy responsibility affects my mental health and the health of all educators, and it certainly impacts our ability to properly teach and support students. In the wake of Chicago’s teacher assistant layoffs this summer, my colleagues and I have dealt with the added stress of job uncertainty, too.

But we haven’t acknowledged the effects of that stress on educators, and we aren’t equipped with support to manage it.

The good news is that we are having a conversation about the effects of stress and trauma on our students. I’ve watched advocates successfully push for change: Educators for Excellence-Chicago, an educator-led organization I am involved with, brought some of these issues to light last June. Since then, we have held citywide problem-solving forums in partnership with the district’s Office of Social Emotional Learning and successfully advocated for the passage of two school state resolutions to ensure that student trauma is appropriately recognized throughout Illinois.

The recent focus on social-emotional learning — also known as “soft skills” — in our classrooms is also helping schools better prepare students for challenges that no child should face, but many do.

Those challenges are real: In my classroom, one student is a caregiver for his parent, another has lost multiple siblings to gun violence, and many others have parents that work long hours and are rarely around. These experiences have a considerable impact on their learning; often, students don’t have the tools to cope with this stress, and so they express their frustration by acting out in disruptive ways.

And yet, amid all this advocacy for our students’ mental health, we neglect our own. I worry that without a healthy state of mind, educators can’t offer their best teaching and attention to students, perhaps causing additional harm to kids already dealing with heavy burdens outside of school.

I don’t think it has to be this way. If more funding was allocated to our schools for student counseling, it would allow educators more time to focus on teaching. Our schools could provide social and emotional support to our students and staff to help them learn coping mechanisms. We would be able to hold self-care activities for the entire school. Support staff could give students and parents tools to support them outside of school.

To ensure students’ well-being, we need our own help.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” Student and educator mental wellness are deeply interconnected, and we all must make sure we help educators be the best they can be for their students.

Shakita Smith is a teacher’s assistant at Pablo Casals School of Excellence in Humboldt Park. She is also a member of the Chicago Teachers Union and Educators for Excellence, a national teacher policy and advocacy organization.