Making the grade

New data show more than half of NYC teachers judged, in part, by test scores they don’t directly affect

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

Just over half of New York City teachers were evaluated in the 2015–16 school year, in part, by tests in subjects or of students they didn’t teach, according to data obtained by Chalkbeat through a public records request.

At 53 percent of city teachers, it’s significant number, but substantially lower than in previous years, possibly thanks to a moratorium placed on using state tests, instituted mid-year.

That figure also highlights a key tension in evaluating all teachers by student achievement, even teachers who work with young students or in subjects like physical education. Being judged by other teachers’ students or subjects has long annoyed some educators and relieved others, who otherwise might have had to administer additional tests.

Supporters say evaluating teachers by group measures — often school-wide scores on standardized tests — helps create a sense of shared mission in a school. But the approach could also push teachers away from working in struggling schools.

“The key point around school-wide measures is that this could serve as a strong disincentive for these teachers in non-tested grades and subjects to stay in lower-performing schools,” said Matthew Steinberg at the University of Pennsylvania, who has studied teacher evaluation systems.

Will Mantell, a spokesperson for the New York City Department of Education, defended the district’s approach.

“Selecting school-wide [or] grade-wide … measures may better measure educators’ practice and support professional development,” he said. “For example, it makes sense for a social studies teacher who emphasizes writing in her classroom to be evaluated partially on an assessment of students’ ELA skills.”

New York’s evaluation system has gone through a number of substantial changes since it was first codified in state law in 2012, part of a nationwide push to connect teacher performance to student test scores, spurred by federal incentives.

Student assessments have comprised anywhere from 40 percent of the evaluation to essentially 50 percent, under a matrix system pushed by Governor Andrew Cuomo in 2015. Most recently, New York stopped using grades 3-8 English and math state tests as part of the system, but teachers must continue to be judged based on some assessment.

States across the country have struggled to evaluate teachers in traditionally non-tested grades and subjects. New York City has created a number of exams — known as performance assessments — in non-tested areas and given schools significant flexibility in which measures are used to judge their teachers.

In the 2015-16 school year, 53 percent of teachers were evaluated by a group metric, meaning one not focused on their subject or students. In the two previous years, the number was much higher — around 85 percent. It’s not clear why there was a substantial drop, but a spokesperson for the city’s education department notes that 2015-16 was an “outlier” due to the moratorium on state tests, instituted mid-year.

In all three years, most teachers were also evaluated by at least one individualized measure targeted to teachers’ grade, subject and students.

Data for the most recent school year are not yet available.

It’s also not clear what percentage of a teacher’s rating was based on group measures, and Mantell said this “varies from teacher to teacher.”

The United Federation of Teachers has pushed to give schools more individual options, including the use of more “authentic” assessments, not based on multiple choice questions.

“Right now, we don’t have enough options, which is why our most recent agreement with the DOE seeks to build more authentic assessments for additional grades and subjects,” said Michael Mulgrew, president of the UFT in a statement.

Group measures offer an alternative to creating exams for each teacher in every grade and subject, which can lead to a proliferation of new tests, though in New York City teachers have often been judged by both group and individual metrics.

The challenge of evaluating teachers in traditionally untested areas is not unique to New York, and a number of states have embraced group or school-wide approaches. An analysis of 32 states, conducted by Steinberg, found that the average teacher in a non-tested grade or subject had about 7 percent of his or her evaluation based on school-wide achievement measures, though this averaged together substantial variation from place to place. Teachers in Tennessee and Florida have sued (unsuccessfully), arguing that it is unfair to evaluate them based on students they didn’t teach.

A more popular option, used in some districts in New York, has been student-learning objectives, in which teachers set goals for students often based on classroom exams. This approach has been praised for helping teachers set specific goals, but criticized as burdensome and easy to manipulate.

Research has found that using school-wide measures of performance tends to bring teachers closer to average performance. An analysis by the Brookings Institution showed that these group measures pulled down ratings of teachers with higher individual ratings at low-performing schools.

testing talk

‘Virtually meaningless’ or ‘steady progress’? New York City reacts to this year’s state test scores

PHOTO: Grace Tatter

English and math exam pass rates inched up in New York City this year compared to last year — more than they did in the state as a whole, city officials announced Tuesday.

The annual release of test scores created a wave of reactions from education stakeholders across the state. Charter school advocates claimed victory, the state teachers union called them “meaningless” and Mayor Bill de Blasio said they represent the “painstaking work” of schools across New York City.

Here is a sample of reactions:

The mayor touted his own education agenda.

“These improvements over the past four years represent painstaking work – student by student, classroom by classroom, and school by school. It’s steady progress towards a stronger and fairer system for all. We are focused on building on these gains and others – such as the highest-ever high school graduation rate – to deliver equity and excellence for every public school student across the city, no matter their zip code.” — Mayor Bill de Blasio

Charter advocates said it shows the strength of their approach.

“New York City charter public schools are continuing to show us poverty is not destiny in the greatest city in the world. Charter public schools offer the promise of closing the achievement gap and today’s results show they are delivering on that promise. It’s been almost 20 years since New York passed its charter law and these public schools are now out of the experimentation phase: not only should their lessons have more reach, but so should they.” — StudentsFirstNY Executive Director Jenny Sedlis

Success Academy highlighted its push for more school space.

“These results should inspire the de Blasio administration to immediately support Success Academy and other high-performing charters to serve more students in public space.” — Eva Moskowitz, Success Academy founder and CEO

The state’s teachers union called the test scores “virtually meaningless.”

“They don’t count for students or teachers — and they shouldn’t count. They are derived from a broken testing system; are rooted in standards that are no longer being taught; and — for now — are the foundation of a totally discredited teacher evaluation system. The test-and-punish era damaged the trust and confidence of parents in our public education system, as evidenced by the continuing strength of the opt-out movement, and we believe dramatic changes are needed to win them back.” — NYSUT President Andy Pallotta

The city’s teachers union said they represented “progress.”

“Thanks to the efforts of teachers and other staff members across the city, our students are making solid, sustainable progress and the nation’s largest school system is moving in the right direction.” — UFT President Michael Mulgrew

Other groups took the chance to criticize opt-out.

“The results show the right thing to do is to keep moving forward, not tear down high standards and end annual assessments like opponents call for. The continued rise in proficiency scores is a clear sign that high standards are preparing students for future challenges, and parents are increasingly rejecting misguided calls to ‘opt out’ of the state’s annual check-ups. Both of these are good trends for every student in New York, no matter where they are growing up.” — High Achievement New York Executive Director Stephen Sigmund

And some pushed for more dramatic change.

“While we are pleased to see the test scores move in the right direction for New York City students overall, we are concerned about the persistent gaps that exist for students with disabilities and English Language Learners. Teaching students to read is one of the most fundamental tasks of schools.  With only 5.6% of English Language Learners and 10.7% of students with disabilities scoring proficiently in reading, the city must do more to support these students and ensure that they receive high-quality, evidence-based instruction that targets their individual needs.”— Advocates for Children Executive Director Kim Sweet

Testing Time

New York’s state test scores are coming out today. Here’s what we’ll be watching for.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

At long last, New York state English and math test scores are being released today, according to state officials.

Though the tests have been criticized as providing only a snapshot of what students have learned, they are still one of the main tools used to judge the progress of schools, students, and major education initiatives.

Because the tests themselves held steady between 2016 and 2017, the test scores will provide a brief glimpse into whether students are making progress. That could also mean smaller changes than last year, when English scores shot up nearly eight percentage points.

But stable comparisons will only make a temporary appearance in New York education. Next year, the state has announced it will shorten testing by two days, which will no doubt call yearly comparisons into question again.

Here are a few storylines we’ll be watching as the state prepares to release test results:

Is the city’s approach to education policy working? What about signature programs like “Renewal”?

When test results jumped almost eight points in English and roughly one point in math last year, Mayor Bill de Blasio was quick to say they showed “pure hard evidence” his policies were working.

The state’s top education policymakers, however, cautioned that due to changes in the test, an “apples-to-apples” comparison to the year before was impossible. The changes included offering students unlimited time and shortening the exams slightly. This year, state tests were kept consistent in order to make those comparisons possible.

That raises an important question: Without changes to tests, will the results still be good news for Mayor Bill de Blasio and Chancellor Carmen Fariña? It is particularly important for high-profile efforts like the city’s “Renewal” turnaround program, which is entering the year in which the mayor said it should show results.

The only other year under de Blasio’s tenure when the state had fairly consistent testing compared to the prior year was 2015. In that year, test scores inched up one point in math and two points in English.

It may be a good thing if there are only small increases again, said Jennifer Jennings, an associate professor at NYU who has studied testing.

“We hope that they’re gradually inching upwards,” Jennings said. “Very large swings are often evidence that something is off.”

What will happen to opt-out?

For the last two years, about one in five students across New York state have boycotted state tests in protest. That number is significantly lower in New York City — though it has been growing. In 2016, 2.4 percent of city students sat out of the English exams and 2.8 opted out of math in New York City.

The opt-out rate acts as a litmus test of the public’s reaction to state education policy. The movement started in response to a series of state reforms, including adoption of the Common Core and test-based teacher evaluations.

Despite changes the state made last year to appease families upset about the tests, opt-out rates remained relatively consistent. (In fact, they ticked up a bit.) This year, the state has embarked on a process to reshape learning standards and submit a new plan to evaluate schools under the new federal education law.

Will that be enough to defuse some of the tension? Early results indicated opt-out rates may have decreased statewide, but the final tally will likely be released today with state test scores, as it has in past years.

What about equity, which is at the heart of the city’s agenda?

Each year, test results show a disheartening fact: Certain subgroups, such as black and Hispanic students, fare worse than their peers on tests. English learners and students with disabilities also historically score below average.

City and state officials have placed equity at the heart of their agenda. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “Equity and Excellence” initiatives and his approach to turning around struggling schools are predicated on the idea that schools — particularly those in low-income communities — need resources in order to be successful. State officials have put equity at the center of their plan to reshape education policy under the Every Student Succeeds Act.

De Blasio’s critics, however, have argued the best way to address equity issues is tackling segregation in New York City schools. (The mayor released a preliminary diversity plan, but has been fairly slow to endorse integration as a strategy for school improvement.)

So, are the extra resources helping to close the gap between students of color and their white and Asian peers? This year’s test scores will help sort out that question, though many of the mayor’s major initiatives could take years to come to fruition.