First Person

Comparing Small Apples to Large Apples

I’m not sure how much credibility the Progress Reports at the heart of the NYC Department of Education’s accountability system have left.  The elementary and middle school Reports issued earlier this fall were ridiculed for their inability to distinguish one school from another, since 97% of the school’s received A’s or B’s (and 84% received A’s).  Moreover, I showed that the student progress measures that make up 60% of a school’s overall score were highly unreliable from one year to the next.  As long as these reports are tied to year-to-year changes in state test scores, they’re likely to be fatally flawed.

On Monday, the Department released the 2008-09 Progress Reports for high schools.  Anna Phillips reported that Chancellor Joel Klein said that the high school Progress Reports were more stable and accurate than those for elementary and middle schools because they’re based on multiple measures.  Huh?  Welcome to the party, Chancellor Klein.  I hate to tell you that measures such as credit accumulation are not necessarily accurate measures of a school’s contribution to student learning and development. 

But the high school Progress Reports have a bigger problem.  Three-quarters of a school’s score comes from a school’s location in relation to a group of 40 peer schools.  The idea of comparing a school to peer schools is to create an “apples to apples” comparison.  It’s actually a good feature of the Progress Reports that they seek to compare a given school to how schools across the city are doing as well as to how schools that serve similar students are performing.

But it only works if the right criteria are used to determine a school’s peer schools.  Wednesday, Jenny Medina and Robert Gebeloff broke a story in the New York Times that high schools with higher percentages of poor, black and Hispanic students received lower grades on the Progress Reports.  In 2009, they wrote, the high schools which received A’s enrolled an average of 77% black and Hispanic students.  In contrast, the high schools which received C’s, D’s and F’s enrolled an average of 91% black and Hispanic students.  This pattern, found in 2007 and 2008 as well, suggested that the school grading system doesn’t adequately adjust for racial and ethnic differences among schools.

A high school’s peer index is based primarily on its students’ average eighth-grade scores on the state ELA and math exams (using the peculiar metric the DOE has developed for converting the exam’s scale scores into a 1.0 to 4.5 proficiency scale), minus two times the percentage of special education students and minus the percentage of overage students.  A high school with an average proficiency of 3.10, 6% special education students, and 12% overage students would have a peer index of 2.86.  One with an average proficiency of 3.70, 2% special education students, and 5% overage students would have a peer index of 3.61.

Although the formula tries to take special education and overage status into account, I suspect that its designers were unaware that it is dominated by the average proficiency value, because there is far more variance from school to school in average proficiency than in special education and overage status.  But a larger question is, why these factors and not others?  Why not the percentage of English Language Learners (ELL’s)?  Why not the percentage of students eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch?  Why not the racial/ethnic make-up of the school?  (And when is the DOE going to wise up that it can’t treat black students as equivalent to Hispanic students, and Asian students as equivalent to white students?  These groups have different learning trajectories.)

And why stop there?  If the goal is to try to isolate the impact of the school on student performance and progress, then logic would dictate that we should seek to control for all factors that are prior to selection into one school versus another, and potentially related to students’ outcomes.  That includes a range of demographic criteria, to be sure.  But there are at least two other factors that I think ought to be taken into account.  The first is school size.  Schools in New York City generally have little control over their size, and if small schools provide certain advantages for students, then we should compare small schools to small schools and large schools to large schools.  The second is per-pupil expenditures.  Even in the Fair Student Funding era, there are disparities in per-pupil expenditures across schools that are not accounted for by demographic differences in the students attending different schools.  I’ve spoken to principals who are indignant that their peer schools have higher expenditures, and yet they are being held to the same performance criteria.

Does all this matter?  You bet.  Let’s look at just one of the many measures in the high school Progress Reports:  the percentage of second-year students accumulating ten or more credits.  (The pattern I’m going to describe is found for many of the performance and progress measures in the Progress Reports.)   Citywide, the 2009 average was 72%, with a standard deviation of 15%.  Schools are compared to their “peer range,” a school’s location in relation to its lowest and highest peers.  Citywide, schools were, on average, 59% of the distance between the lowest and highest peers on their percentages of second-year students accumulating ten or more credits.

But some schools were advantaged in these calculations, and others disadvantaged, even though the peer horizon scores are explicitly designed to compare “apples to apples.”  The figure below compares schools in the lowest quarter of a given demographic feature to schools in the top quarter.  Schools with high concentrations of black and Hispanic students;  large schools;  schools with a higher proportion of special education students;  and schools with more English Language Learners all score lower relative to their “peer” schools than do other schools. 


What these figures suggest is that New York City’s high school Progress Reports systematically penalize some schools and reward others.  So when you see the DOE touting the superiority of the progress made by the small schools opened during the Bloomberg/Klein era, remember that it’s no accident:  it’s built into the accountability system.

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.