reaction roulette

Meaningless? Cause for celebration? Interpretations of newest test scores run the gamut

PHOTO: Ed Reed for the Office of Mayor Bill de Blasio
Mayor Bill de Blasio.

New York state’s latest test scores are completely meaningless — or the key to understanding whether any students are learning.

The city’s modest gains are the result of a year of rolling back the education policies of the Bloomberg administration, adding teacher training time, and empowering district leaders — or they demonstrate just why those policies are doomed to fail.

On test-score day, it all depends who you talk to.

To be sure, there are many ways to interpret the city’s scores, which increased by one percentage point in math and two points in English this year, continuing a slow climb while revealing persistent disparities. But for the elected officials, charter-school leaders, and big-spending advocacy groups with a stake in New York’s education debates, the results are used to bolster almost any argument.

At a press conference at P.S. 19 Asher Levy in the East Village, Mayor Bill de Blasio said the continued progress was cause for celebration, and credited his administration’s focus on extra time for professional development for teachers and a shake-up of the education department’s structure with contributing to the gains.

“The building blocks that we put in place all are contributing and will contribute much more going forward to the progress we’ll make,” de Blasio said, calling it a “great day for New York City.”

Last week, the mayor played down the relative importance of state test results, and Chancellor Carmen Fariña has tried to reduce the pressure schools feel to rapidly improve scores. But de Blasio will also soon have to win over a governor and state legislature that gave him just one year of control over the school system, and officials took pains Wednesday to link the increases to their new education policies while also acknowledging longer-term gains.

“We will continue to make superintendents accountable for what happens in their districts, principals accountable for what happens in their schools and teachers accountable for what happens in their classrooms,” Fariña said, referencing the recent restructuring.

Meanwhile, Karen Magee, president of the New York State United Teachers, which encouraged parents to opt their children out of the state tests, said “it would be a huge mistake to read anything into these test results.” Especially since one in five eligible students statewide declined to take the tests this year, the scores “aren’t worth the paper they are printed on,” she said.

Another union leader, Michael Mulgrew, of the city’s United Federation of Teachers, found some value in the results.

“We’re seeing progress, particularly in reading, thanks to a city administration that really cares about student learning, increased availability of appropriate curriculum and training, and hard work by teachers and students,” Mulgrew said in a statement.

Eva Moskowitz, the CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools and a political rival of de Blasio’s, found different reasons to celebrate. Of the 3,000 Success students who took the state tests, most of whom are black and Hispanic, 93 percent passed the math exams and 68 percent passed the English exam, beating city averages for white students by roughly 40 and 20 points, respectively.

“These results prove that the educational inequality that traps thousands of New York City’s children of color in poverty can be eliminated, if only our elected officials muster the political will,” Moskowitz said.

Allies of Moskowitz were more pointed in trying to tie de Blasio’s policies to the continued poor performance of black and Hispanic students.

“Unless Mayor de Blasio reverses policies that deny students access to high-quality schools, he risks presiding over a failing schools crisis defined by educational inequality,” said Jeremiah Kittredge, executive director of Families for Excellent Schools, which organizes parent rallies for Success Academy.

The reaction from other charter advocates was measured. The charter sector often points to its students’ performance on state tests as evidence for why the city needs more charter schools. This year, the city’s charter schools outperformed the citywide averages in math but lagged in English, and both numbers improved by a smaller margin than the city’s.

Dave Levin, founder of the KIPP network of charter schools, noted that its overall proficiency rates exceeded the city’s growth by three points in English and four points in math.

“While we are proud of these academic gains, we have more work to do,” Levin said in a statement.

James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center, noted that charter schools bested district schools when comparing the results of black and Hispanic students.

“While proficiency rates are still not as high as they need to be in charter or district schools,” he said in a statement, “this is definitive proof that charter schools serve a critical role in meeting the needs of traditionally underserved populations and it shows why they are in such high demand from families in long underserved communities.”

Meanwhile, Advocates for Children of New York called the proficiency rates for the city’s English language learners — 4 percent in English, under 15 percent in math — “devastating.” Proficiency rates among students with disabilities actually declined slightly in math, the organization noted, and achievement gaps between those students and their peers in general education were growing.

“This is unacceptable,” it said in a statement.

Also up for debate was how to interpret the state’s acknowledgement that 20 percent of eligible students statewide opted out of taking the tests, up from 5 percent a year ago. State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia stressed that while 1.1 million students were eligible to take the tests, and about 200,000 did not, the state still had 900,000 valid test scores — valuable information for teachers and schools.

Others, including supporters of the tests, said the huge opt-out numbers could call the usefulness of the results into question.

The varying numbers of test-takers “creates an apples-to-oranges comparison” between years, said Steven Sigmund, who heads High Achievement New York, a coalition of groups that support the New York’s implementation of the Common Core standards.

Derrell Bradford, whose organization NYCAN is part of High Achievement New York, said students who took the tests were still in a better position to get the help they need to succeed.

“Everyone else just has a best guess about college and career readiness,” Bradford said.

Sharing Stories

Tell us your stories about children with special needs in Detroit

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Parents of students with special needs face difficult challenges when trying to get services for their children. Understanding their children’s rights, getting them evaluated and properly diagnosed, and creating an educational plan are among the many issues families face.

Chalkbeat Detroit wants to hear more about those issues to help inform our coverage. We are kicking off a series of conversations called a “listening tour” to discuss your concerns, and our first meeting will focus on children with special needs and disabilities. We’re partnering with the Detroit Parent Network as they look for solutions and better ways to support parents.

Our listening tour, combined with similar events in other communities Chalkbeat serves, will continue throughout this year on a variety of topics. In these meetings, we’ll look to readers, parents, educators, and students to help us know what questions we should ask, and we’ll publish stories from people who feel comfortable having their stories told. We hope you’ll share your stories and explore solutions to the challenges parents face.

Our special education listening tour discussion will take place from 5:30-7:30 p.m., Tuesday July 24, at the Detroit Parent Network headquarters, 726 Lothrop St., Detroit.

As our series continues, we’ll meet at locations around the city to hear stories and experiences parents have while navigating the complexities of getting children the education and services they deserve.

Next week’s event includes a panel discussion with parents of children with special needs, responses from parent advocates, and an open discussion with audience members.

Those who are uncomfortable sharing stories publicly will have a chance to tell a personal story on an audio recorder in a private room, or will be interviewed by a Chalkbeat Detroit reporter privately.

The event is free and open to anyone who wants to attend, but reservations are required because space is limited. To register, complete this form, call 313-309-8100 or email frontdesk@detroitparentnetwork.org.

If you can’t make our event, but have a story to share, send an email to tips.detroit@chalkbeat.org, or call or send a text message to 313-404-0692.

Stayed tuned for more information about listening tour stops, topics and locations.

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to cburke@chalkbeat.org

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.