First Person

The Real Cost of Test Score Inflation

There is a growing consensus over New York State’s standardized test scores. They are so inflated that even the Daily News and New York Post aren’t buying in anymore. These are the mayor’s most unquestioning allies, usually loathe to present data that might undermine the case that Mr. Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein are the only ones capable of saving our schools. Yet even they are now skittish over the data upon which the mayor’s case is built.

It’s about time that it is drummed into the public consciousness that serious questions have been raised about both the Regents subject mastery exams taken by high school students, and the grade 3 through 8 tests required under the federal No Child Left Behind law. These impact all of the programs advanced by the mayor and other “reformers,” skewing results and compromises the billions we are investing in the schools.

This issue recently got some front burner attention when the city released their controversial report cards for the schools, a key element in the data based strategy of Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein.

Since the report cards grades are heavily tied into increased scores on state tests, 87 percent of all schools, including a number of severely troubled ones, found themselves with grades of “A.” These Lake Wobegon-like results have finally drawn attention to the testing issue that had been simmering in the background, happily ignored by the politicos and educrats, eager to take credit for the good news.

This matter will surely be taken up in Albany by the Board of Regents and the State Education Department. There really is no more important item on the agenda — unless the test mess is addressed, there is no hope for any reform to be successful, or for any claims of success to be considered real.

We will never be able to make informed public policy decisions if we base decisions on flawed data. Education is our largest single public expenditure, and basing policy decisions on data that is inflated and unreliable is a disservice to the citizenry at a time when they are shouldering a crushing tax burden in this troubled economy.

But the ultimate victims are the children. One factoid from the debate on the tests that was particularly striking to me is that just 146 out of some 70,000 sixth grade students citywide scored at “Level 1” on the reading test administered this year. This is the very lowest level, an indication that a child is far behind academically.

Surely among a universe of children this large, so many from disadvantaged households, the number of children scoring this poorly should be larger, much larger. Proportions between 10 and 20 percent seem about right, and have hovered around those levels historically.

But after the state requires fewer correct answers and has changed the scale used to interpret the results, we have been officially transported to Lake Wobegon on the Hudson, a place where all the students may not yet be above average, but getting there, and fast – at least on paper.

The importance of the numbers of students at Level 1 is that, in the City of New York, achieving at least a score of Level 2 (still below proficiency) is required in many grades for promotion. This is one of the centerpieces of the mayor’s educational program, the “end” of social promotion.

The State Education Department warns that these tests shouldn’t be used as a promotional yardstick, and this topic is certainly worthy of continued debate. But often a line needs to be drawn to signal the need for intervention designed to help the most troubled students, and this one initially seemed as good as any.

By moving the line, without really moving the true level of achievement, the prescribed intervention becomes meaningless. Ironically, as for the 146 “failing” six graders on this year’s reading test, the mayor recently formally expanded his program “ending” social promotion – to include the sixth grade!

If one can accept that perhaps 10 percent of the sixth-grade population is seriously deficient in reading, a figure that I believe is, if anything, too low, 7,000 children in academic trouble have been wrongly promoted. 7,000 children who should have been going to summer school for remediation did not. 7,000 children will fall further behind, no matter what the test scores tell us.

Teachers and principals have confided to me over the years that even as they celebrate their higher scores (and in some cases their hefty bonuses), they are uneasy. Good educators know their students, and they know when the scores no longer reflect the reality of the true level of achievement. We have long passed that point.

Good teachers know that knowledge and skills must be built upon, and at some point further along the academic road there will be a reckoning. Thus we hear reports, such as those here in New York City, that three quarters of students at community colleges, all with high school diplomas in hand, are still in need of remediation. The majority never graduate.

Nationally there are increasing reports of colleges unable to graduate increasing numbers of their students, failing once they achieve what is the universal goal of K-12 school systems, college admission.

Just what do increased high school graduation rates mean when that diploma is a ticket to nowhere? What do the boasts of politicos about rising test scores along the way mean, when the improvements in the end product, the impact a child’s education has on his or her life, is still so disappointing?

The state probably will make changes in the testing program, perhaps as early as next year, and parents of students will be told that their children, geniuses just last year, are suddenly not making the grade.

Years after the fact, we will acknowledge those children need help, help they should have had years earlier. As any teacher will tell you, as time goes on it becomes harder for students to catch up. And by then the cost of fixing the fruit of the state’s deception will be staggering.

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.