First Person

Voices: Santa Claus and standardized tests

Author Angela Engel says standardized tests only serve to widen the divide between students of means and those who are lacking resources.

When I was a little girl I believed that a fat bearded man climbed down my chimney and delivered my dreams wrapped in red and green paper under our family Christmas tree. When I was grown and knew the truth, I passed the belief to my young daughters because it is tradition and because hope is a beautiful thing.

High-stakes standardized tests are a lot like Santa. We think we have a magical way to deliver intelligence and responsibility – like the myth, “If you are good, you get presents.” Kids today are taught to believe “if you color in the right bubbles, you get something, like a college education followed by a high paying job.” Some lies are as harmless as a tooth fairy. But other lies have the power to wound.

For the parent who does not have the means to wrap their child’s hope in shiny ribbons and place them neatly underneath an ornamented tree, the tale of Christmas can be a curse. For the little girl who wakes up on Dec. 25 to discover that all the toys in the stores and television miracles were delivered to other children, Santa is a bitter disappointment. It is a torment for the little boy who wakes up Christmas morning to an empty refrigerator and wonders if it happened because he is a bad boy.

How well a child scores on a standardized test is correlated to their parent’s income, not the size of their brain, nor the quality of their school. Like the story of Santa, millions of parents perpetuate this lie because, however false, test scores feel like a badge of achievement. The Pearson or McGraw Hill label of “above proficient” or “proficient” simply makes them feel good. It’s hard to challenge the things that make us feel good, even if those same things are an injustice to others.

On June 1, 1999, the U.S. Department of Education agreed with Debra Gaudette after the Connecticut State Department of Education refused to provide her daughter’s test answers on the Connecticut Mastery Test (CMT).  The Department of Education ruled that the Connecticut State Department of Education violated Gaudette’s parental rights under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) in denying her access to the test information.

When his daughter was denied her diploma, Martin Swaden of Edina, Minn., asked to see his daughter’s answers from the test used to determine who graduates from high school. Initially, the state refused his request but Swaden, an attorney, persisted by threatening to sue the school district. When finally given the test and his daughter’s answer sheet, Swaden sat in a room with state officials and found his daughter had correctly answered six questions that the National Computer Systems, NCS, had scored wrong. Had NCS scored her correctly it would have been enough to raise her above the score required for graduation. When it was all over, the state determined that errors by NCS had caused 47,000 Minnesota students to get lower scores than they deserved, 8,000 to fail when they should have passed, and 525 seniors to be unjustly denied diplomas.

Errors in standardized tests are common and far less rampant than recognized because test publishers like Pearson and McGraw Hill operate privately without public accountability or education oversight. An independent audit of the Florida FCAT identified an error in 2006 Third Grade Reading Test described as an “accidental misplacement of ‘anchor’ questions.” The FCAT is used as the measure to retain thousands of Florida third-graders.

This year Elizabeth Phillips, principal of PS 321 in New York City, wrote a letter to John B. King Jr., education commissioner of New York State, expressing concern over flawed test questions that included an eighth grade language test featuring a talking pineapple with no correct answers.

“The idea that teachers may lose their jobs and schools may be closed based on how children do on these problematic exams is incredibly upsetting and demoralizing to educators…I hope that you will consider recommending to the State Legislature that given the flaws in the tests, we are not yet ready to use them for high stakes decision making,” according to an article on

These multiple choice tests are used every day to make high stakes decisions in student placement and retention, whether a teacher keeps their job or gets a raise, and which schools stay open and which schools close. It is no mistake that every “turnaround” school has served low-income and minority children. This model of standardization and high-stakes testing has perpetuated education inequities. Children of lower-income families have traded teachers, art, music, computers, after-school programs, counselors, athletics, and prevention services for Scantron test sheets. Their wealthy counterparts in higher-income areas learn Chinese, violin and how to access information globally.

High-stakes tests have thus served to widen both the achievement gap and the opportunity gap between the rich and the poor. Under this feigned banner of “accountability” America’s growing caste system has once again been legitimized; teaching white wealthy children to think smarter and poor colored children to work harder. High-stakes standardized tests are a lie. A lie, similar to the North Pole tale, that rewards high income children and denies low income children of the most important gift: a meaningful education.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.