First Person

The Flat Earth Society

Today’s New York Daily News published a bold editorial on the progress of New York City schoolchildren under the administration of Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein.  “You would be better off arguing that the world is flat, or that the sun revolves around the Earth, than to dispute that New York City kids are performing better and better in school,” writes the Daily News, crowing that there are “fresh and incontrovertible data” pointing to what the newspaper refers to as a “sea change” in New York City. 

They might have wanted to wait a day.

This morning, the U.S. Department of Education released the 2009 results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress assessments of fourth-grade and eighth-grade mathematics in each state and for the nation overall.  Nationally, fourth-grade performance held steady from 2007 to 2009, and there was a slight but statistically significance over this period in eighth-grade math performance.  In New York State, the small declines in fourth-grade and gains in eighth grade were not statistically significant, leading to the conclusion that there has been no change in the performance of New York students on the NAEP math assessment from 2007 to 2009. 

This is a very different story than the one told by New York’s own assessment system, on which the Bloomberg and Klein administration has staked its claims about the great progress in student achievement.  The average scale score in fourth-grade mathematics increased from 680 in 2007 to 689 in 2009, a hefty 9 points;  the jump in eighth-grade scores was even more dramatic, as the average scale score rose from 657 in 2007 to 675 in 2009, a remarkable increase of 18 points.

To put these two sets of numbers in context, the chart below shows the gains in fourth-grade and eighth-grade math performance from 2007 to 2009 expressed in standard deviation units (i.e., the amount of variation among individual students in 2007).  According to NAEP, fourth-graders’ performance fell .07 standard deviations from 2007 to 2009, a difference that is not significantly different from zero.  In contrast, fourth-graders gained .23 standard deviations on the New York State assessment from 2007 to 2009.  Similarly, the NAEP results indicate that eighth-graders in New York gained .08 standard deviations from 2007 to 2009 in math performance, a difference that is not significantly different from zero, but they gained .47 standard deviations over this period on the New York State test.


Another way of comparing the implications of the two different sets of test results is to think about where the average student in 2009 would have scored in 2007.  Based on these standard deviations, and assuming that the scores follow a bell-curve distribution, the New York State scores indicate that the average fourth-grader in 2009 scored at the 59th percentile of the 2007 fourth-grade distribution, which is a pretty big jump.  The increment for eighth-graders is even more striking:  the average eighth-grader in 2009 scored at the 68th percentile of the 2007 eighth-grade distribution, based on the New York State tests.  In contrast, the NAEP data indicate that the average New York fourth-grader in 2009 scored at the 47th percentile of the 2007 distribution of fourth-grade math performance in New York State, and the average eighth-grader in 2009 scored at the 53rd percentile of the 2007 eighth-grade distribution.
How can we explain these differences?  There are lots of possible explanations, but most of them don’t hold up under close scrutiny.  The two tests are taken by similar populations of students under similar conditions, and the grade-level mathematics standards on which the two assessments are based do not differ dramatically.  The NAEP test is a low-stakes test, which might result in students not taking it seriously, but the statisticians who oversee the NAEP testing program look for patterns suggesting this, and find little evidence of it.  It’s extremely unlikely that there’s rampant cheating going on in the New York State testing system that could explain the differences. 

 It’s possible that the New York State tests have been getting easier over time.  I have yet to see definitive evidence ruling this out.  There also is strong suggestive evidence of “score inflation” in the New York State tests, because there are predictable patterns in the standards which appear on the state tests year after year, with some standards showing up repeatedly each year, and some standards having never been tested at all during the life of the testing program.  Schools and teachers can make use of these patterns, which also show up in the format of test questions covering particular standards, to focus their instruction on the subset of standards that crop up again and again.  Because the New York State tests never test some standards, we have no idea about whether students have mastered them.  In contrast, the design of the NAEP assessment allows for a much broader picture of mathematics performance, because so many more standards and test item formats are incorporated into the test.

 Whatever the reason, the discrepancy between the NAEP trends and trends in the NewYork State test scores raises serious questions about what the New York tests are telling us about the academic performance of students in New York State.  The same, of course, goes for New York City.  We’ll see NAEP scores for New York City in a month or so, but it’s unlikely that they will yield a different story than what I’m describing here.
Is the Earth flat?  No.  But New York State test scores, and probably New York City scores, are.

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.