Tag Archives: Testing

Did the DOE Just Do Something Right?

Did the blind squirrel find a nut? Not so fast.

Did the blind squirrel find a nut? Not so fast.

The New York City Department of Education did the right thing this past Friday by discontinuing its contract with McGraw-Hill. You might recall the debacle into which the scoring of the Regents exams descended this past June. Despite the DOE’s attempts to pin the blame on teachers, the public realized that the blame rested exclusively with McGraw-Hill and the DOE.

The annual scoring of Regents exams was one of the only fairly smooth undertakings of which I have been a part as a DOE employee. Our entire history department would get together with the assistant principal to “norm” the exam, which is a sort of self-training aimed at helping us understand the scoring rubrics in the same way. After we were all “normed”, we would split into pairs and grade piles of exams. We knew each other and we knew the students, making the process relatively painless. Each student would have their grades within a week, meaning they would know where they stood in terms of promotion and graduation.

However, the DOE feared a cheating scandal a la Georgia or D.C. They scrapped the decades-old system in favor of a convoluted scheme that resulted in a big fat contract for McGraw-Hill. The scheme involved having students take the exams, then having the school package the exams in an extremely specific manner (God help a school or a teacher that flubbed this part of the process) and putting those meticulously packaged exams on a truck bound for Connecticut where they would be scanned into a central database. At the same time, certain teachers were pulled from their schools and told to report to central grading sites around the city. These sites were generally larger schools that had enough computers for everyone to use. The process was an absolute train wreck for everyone involved, especially the students.

As one of the lucky teachers assigned to one of these grading centers (Stuyvesant High School to be exact), I had a front-row seat for when this new procedure went up in flames. Not only did the norming process take forever, we had to learn how to use the computer grading program and internalize a whole bunch of new protocols. These were small hurdles compared the biggest obstacle in our way: the gross incompetence of McGraw-Hill.

It would be but a few hours of grading essays before we received a pop-up message on our computers that read something along the lines of “the RIM for this exam is full”. We never fully figured out what RIM stood for but we knew it was McGraw-Hill’s way of telling us that they had not scanned all of the exams. They could not even scan the exams fast enough to keep up with us grading them. This meant that there were many-a-day when we ran out of essays to grade and had to be sent back to our schools. While this was a small matter for me who works within walking distance of Stuyvesant, it was quite the inconvenience for those who taught anywhere else in Manhattan. The big losers in this debacle were the students, especially those who needed to know their results for graduation and did not receive them, which led to students either being deprived of the right to walk down the aisle or being allowed to walk down the aisle with the proverbial “asterisk”. There were teachers who were stuck in grading centers who were deprived of the opportunity to watch their students graduate. All of this thanks to the good people at McGraw-Hill.

This coming June, teachers will still have to report to centralized grading centers but this time they will be graded by hand. The philosophy behind this effort is that teachers should not be allowed to grade their own students’ exams.

There are many things wrong with this philosophy. First off, high school teachers never really graded their students’ exams to begin with. Sure, we graded parts of their exams but the way it works in most schools is that all teachers in the department grade at least one part of all the exams. We are mostly grading students in other teachers’ classes, a practice that both online scoring and centralized paper scoring does not change.

Most importantly, I did absolutely nothing different when scoring the exams of kids in other schools via computer. I graded them the exact way I have graded students in my own school, which means giving them as many points as the rubric would allow. There was not a single teacher who I met that did not do the same. Bloomberg and Walcott really do not give themselves enough credit. They have created such an atmosphere of fear inside school buildings that teachers would be daft to risk their careers on out-and-out scrubbing of exams. There was really no need for such an expensive and inefficient program to prevent a non-existent problem.

At least the DOE has got it half-right for the 2014 Regents exams. We will still be shuffled around like cattle, albeit without having to deal with a lousy computer program. It is in step with the idea that teachers cannot be trusted. However, is it also not a tacit admission on the part of the reformers that testing does in fact skew incentives? It is merely a surface concern of a thoroughly rotten regime that revolves curriculum, instruction and “standards” around exams that not only determine whether or not a student graduates, but now will determine the ratings of teachers. If they think they have to create all of these hoops through which we all must jump for these exams, then perhaps it is a sign that there is something wrong with the way these exams are being used.

This McGraw-Hill fiasco should be Exhibit A against the well-worn argument that the private sector is more “efficient” for education, or anything else for that matter.

Reasons to Listen to the Radio

Tonight, Mind of a Bronx Teacher’s guest will be Peggy Robertson of United Opt Out National. The Opt Out movement has been gaining traction recently, especially with Race to the Top metastasizing across the country. Those of us who wish to guide the teacher unions down a more democratic path would be well served to make common cause with United Opt Out. It has the potential to be a powerful tool of civil disobedience.

Check here for how to tune in tonight’s show:

South Bronx School

Then, this coming Thursday (March 8, 2012), I will be a guest on the Mom Madness show at 3pm on Harlem Talk Radio. The discussion will revolve around the new teacher evaluations for New York State and how they might impact the parents of New York City. Arne Duncan was a guest recently, so I hope to balance out the propaganda he spouted about Race to the Top.

You can listen to Harlem Talk Radio online here:

Harlem Talk Radio

Value Add This

The New York Times beat everyone else to the punch by releasing the teacher data reports last night. The rest of the news outlets are sure to release them throughout the course of the rest of today.

No, I am not linking to them.

I have taught United States History for as long as I remember. My students generally do well on the U.S. History  Regents. Since I have been at my current school, my  students have had well above a 90%  pass rate every year. Two years ago 100% of my students passed the Regents with over 60% of them scoring 85 or higher.

Teachers like me who generally have students with high pass rates should be  just as outraged over what the DOE and the media are doing with this “value added” garbage as anyone else.

First, the U.S. History Regents is cake. The scoring rubric is so generous that an average  student has to literally try to fail it. Second, the test is usually given to 11th graders, who are more serious and mature than underclassmen. The ones at risk of dropping out have usually done so before the 11th grade.

The scores of my students do not reflect my quality as a teacher. When I used to teach 10th grade Global History, the Regents pass rates of my students were lower. Take me out of 11th grade and put me in front of a 10th grade class and my stats would take a hit.

It reminds me of the famous Casey Stengel line after he went from managing the championship-addicted New York Yankees to the hapless Mets, essentially moving him from first place to worst place. He said “I guess I got dumb in a hurry.”

Of course, he was making the point that a manager is not the deciding factor in the success of his team. He was also acknowledging that the media was going to blame him for the Mets’ failure regardless of that fact.

Fast forward 50 years and teachers have joined the Casey Stengel club. They are being publicly blamed for things over which they have little control.

This means that when value added data gets released for us high school teachers (and we know it will), my name will be there, probably with a favorable number next to it.

And that angers me.

I do not want people thinking I am a “good” teacher because some arbitrary number stands next to my name. It gives absolutely no indication of the type of teacher I am and what goes on in my classroom.

Sure, I cover the material that will be covered on the Regents. Admittedly, part of me does it out of fear for my own hide. More importantly, I do it because I acknowledge that I am in a system that requires students to pass this test in order to graduate. I feel it is my duty to help prepare them for the test so they can go on to get their diplomas. It is vital for their futures that I do this.

I could take a stand and say “screw this, I am going to teach the higher order stuff that I want to teach.” I can imagine doing that if it was part of a larger rebellion of teachers, students, parents and administrators aimed at bringing down the entire standardized testing regime. But if I were to make a unilateral decision to thumb my nose at the test and teach whatever the hell I wanted to teach, would I be doing this for the good of the students or to massage my own rebellious ego?

So I make my pact with the devil and try to help my students walk into that testing room with the knowledge to get through the test. But that does not mean that I do not exact a price for selling my soul in this way.

I take my pound of flesh and I do that by teaching whatever the hell I want to teach anyway. Once I felt confident enough in my craft, I have always tried to strike a balance between teaching to the test and teaching the good stuff. There is a way to do both at the same time. This way, I do not feel quite so dirty.

My students know me as the teacher that never uses the textbook. On day one I tell my students that they will receive a textbook but I doubt that we will ever use it (gotta keep your options open). Instead, I explain to them that they will get handouts , notes and homework  everyday. None of these things are particularly difficult. I was never one to load my students down with tons of work anyway. But if they keep all of these things in order (and I punch holes in everything I give them to help them stay organized), they will see that they are compiling their own textbooks over the course of the year. They can thumb through their history section and see maps, graphs, charts, pictures, readings, notes and homework. They will have a treasure trove of information by the end of the year to which they can always refer.

The best part is that most of the information comes from them. Their notes are points of class discussion that they bring up and that I write on the board. Sometimes they get to write it all on the board themselves. Their homework assignments are a series of thought questions that requires them to go through the day’s notes and handouts in order to synthesize different chunks of information and draw their own conclusions. This precludes them from having to read walls of boring paragraphs in textbooks that tend to kill any love they might have for history. For the average student, it should take no more than 10 minutes to complete. Students have come to me and said that they actually find the homework fun.

None of this is easy. All of the handouts ( I literally have hundreds) contain visuals or passages that I have chosen off of the internet, usually from a simple Google image search. I then write my own questions underneath them. My lesson plans have all the meaty information, including dates and vocabulary, that I wish to pull out of class discussions. What ends up going on the board as their notes is a compromise between what they say and what is in the lesson plan. They get a homework sheet at the start of every unit with all the assignments for the next two weeks or so. Again, I make all of the questions myself. If there are days when we do not cover some of the questions, my students know not to worry about it. We will get to it another time.

This does not even count the research papers or extra projects we do, which vary from year to year.

By doing things in this way, I do not feel quite as dirty. I can help my students prepare for the Regents while also turning them on to higher level historical analysis. The historical content they get is fuller and more accurate than the one-dimensional (and sometimes plain wrong) drivel that is found in history textbooks.  I am still trying to find the right balance between teaching to the test and teaching for actual historical appreciation, which is part of what makes teaching an art and not a science.

And this is the entire point. Teaching is an art. But the people who worship at the altar of value added and testing think everything can be broken down to a science. Like all sciences, real sciences that is, they think it can all be expressed in numbers.

At the core, this is what makes value added invalid. People keep talking about the wild “margins of error” for all the data the media is set to release today. This assumes that there is a model expressible in numbers that can have lower margins of error.

There will never be a value added formula without huge margins of error. It is a fool’s pursuit to try to find one. You simply cannot measure an art form in scientific terms.

The margin of error is so vast because value added is an error in and of itself.

This is the same problem with the new teacher evaluations. People are crowing about it, or at least saying it is not so bad, because it measures teachers in multiple ways. That is not the point. The point is that it promises to stuff all of these measures into a sausage of numbers.

You simply cannot put a number on an art form. This goes for the learning process as well. The whole concept of putting numbers on students in the form of grades is asinine, but that is another discussion entirely.

The value added craze and the teacher evaluation debacle merely reflect the true goal of education deformers, which is to take all of the art out of teaching. They do not care about the “achievement gap” or “failing schools” at all. They care about reducing teachers to automatons and piano keys.

This is why idiotic teachers like those over at Educators4Excellence applaud the new evaluation system. None of them ever saw teaching as an art. None of them stay in the profession long enough to get an appreciation for teaching as an art. There is nothing excellent about them aside from their own sense of self-importance.

None of the numbers that the newspapers published mean a damn thing. You cannot put a number on what teachers do, ever. The vast majority of teachers in NYC, whether with high value added or low value added stats, do what I described for myself. They stay up late making lessons. They reflect on their craft. They take the success of their students personally. They somehow find a balance between actual teaching and teaching to a test. They may not all do it in the same way, but that is what makes teaching such a great profession and such an art form.

But now, in New York City at least, the deformers have taken a giant step towards taking the art out of teaching.

This is what makes every teacher in New York City an assailed teacher.

The Next Teacher Strike

The last NYC teacher strike drove a wedge between teachers and the communities they serve. The next one will bridge the gap.

New York City teachers are due for a strike.

Leo Casey claims (check the comments section) that the union will fight for something other than standardized exams on the local level. He claims that there are other types of assessments the city can use.

Sure there are.

But what happens when Bloomberg and Commissioner King say that they will not hear of anything else except local exams? How far will the UFT be willing to go to prevent our schools from becoming testing factories?

As Diane Ravitch has said, can you imagine a school system that tests kids 3, 4 or 5 times every year not to help them learn anything, but for the sole purpose of holding their teachers “accountable”?

How far is the UFT willing to go to prevent this madness?

The UFT already lost the fight in court to prevent unreliable, less than garbage “value added” data from being released to the public.  Despite the fact that Bill Gates (!) and Dennis Walcott (!) have warned against the unreliability of these numbers, every major media outlet is set to release them tomorrow morning. Even Gotham Schools, despite getting pats on the back (including from themselves) for vowing not release the reports, will still publish them in some form.

This is the result of a ten-year campaign of teacher vilification from the media, politicians and business leaders who have blamed us for urban poverty and an “achievement gap”.

Enough is enough.

The last major teacher strike in 1968 drove a wedge between the city’s (predominantly Jewish) teachers and the predominately black school districts in Brooklyn.

The next major teacher strike will bridge that gap.

The common theme throughout all of these things is testing. It looms over the heads of students and teachers as a weapon used by people who know absolutely nothing about education to destroy public schools.

If teachers strike, the issue of testing must be the centerpiece. Everything else: the lack of funding for inner-city schools, the decline of teacher rights, the chartering wave, can all be tied (if tenuously) back to the central issue of testing.

Do the parents of New York City want their children to do nothing but take tests for 10 months of the year? Do they want the teachers of their students to be so repressed, so ill protected, that they cannot speak out against poor treatment and lack of services for their students?

Do the people who send their children to NYC schools, who are the same people being gentrified out of their homes, want to continue to leave the school system in the hands of the mayor responsible for their displacement? Do the inner city communities of New York City want to leave the school system in the hands of the same mayor who has given them nothing but “stop and frisk”?

Negotiating, compromising and lawsuits, which have been the preferred tactics of the UFT, have failed. They have done nothing but provide a rubber stamp for all of these atrocities perpetrated by the Bloomberg regime.

Yes, I know, without the union, things would have been worse. Yes, the union has cushioned the blow against many of these so-called reforms. Even if that is true, which I am not sure it is, that simply is not good enough anymore. Just like the Democratic Party, their “cushioning” ends in disaster for the people they are supposedly representing.

The only thing left is to opt out of this brutal regime. The only way to opt out is by using the only thing over which we have any control: our bodies.

They can make all the laws and evaluations they want. If people are not there to follow them, then it is all irrelevant.

The only thing left is a strike.

But it has to be more than a strike. It cannot just be one sector of workers or one group out for their own interests hitting the streets. This needs to be a movement. It needs to be teachers, administrators, parents and students. It needs to be an eruption of all of the people Bloomberg has tried to suppress. Veteran educators, oppressed minorities, children and the urban poor must hit back and hit back hard.

How fitting if we could get something like this off the ground when Bloomberg is on his way out? What better repudiation of his tenure, his legacy, his entire school-closing, stop-and-frisking, gentrifying, bike-lane drawing vision for New York than to have everyone victimized by this vision to take the streets and shut the city down?

We know the UFT will not support us. The first words out of their mouths will be “Taylor Law”, followed by all the usual hems and haws about why nothing of substance can be done to resist.

So it must be done by going around the UFT. It must be done by going around the entire Neoliberal apparatus in which the UFT has been complicit.

The only question is how? What strategies and what tactics should be used? How do we sustain this action in the face of court injunctions, jack-booted police and media ridicule that is sure to meet such action?

Those questions are still being debated.

But I am reminded of a quote by Nietzsche: “if one has his why, then he can put up with almost any how.”

NY’s Teacher Evaluations: The Mystery 20%

Yesterday, Leo Casey was gracious enough to respond to my critique of his defense of the new teacher evaluations here in New York.

What he addressed above all was this part of my critique:

It is difficult to see what can be a district-wide assessment that is not a test. Can it be a portfolio? Are contractors from the DOE going to pour over millions of stacks of portfolios every year in order to assess each individual student? Will the State Education Commissioner approve this?

To which he responded:

Let me simply take up one point of disagreement here which I think is a particularly telling one — your view that the local measure of student learning must necessarily take the form of a standardized exam, and that this is what I must mean when I talk of assessments. In fact, I chose the word assessment deliberately precisely because I wanted to make clear that it was entirely possible and desirable to use assessments that were not standardized exams. There is a strong tradition of authentic performance assessments in progressive education, with prominent educators such as LInda Darling-Hammond and Deborah Meier among its strongest advocates. There is a consortium of high schools in NYC which have a waiver from a number of the Regents exam to do performance assessments. At the point that the negotiations over the 33 Transformation and Restart Schools broke down, we were actually developing performance assessments for the local measures of student learning. I think it is would be a major mistake to assume that these the local measures must be standardized exams.\

And then my response:

Now, for my part, I am working from a few assumptions. First, that these progressive forms of assessment tend to be less efficient from a grading standpoint, in that they take longer to grade than a fill-in-the blank exam. Second, that it is pretty clear that the DOE will not want teachers themselves to grade these assessments. This would mean that some outside agency will have to do it, or that a committee of educators will do it.

If this is the case, how feasible is it to implement progressive forms of assessment for the largest school system in the country? It seems like a logistical nightmare.

Therefore, it would seem that the only assessment that could feasibly be put in place is a bubble-in exam of the traditional type. It might not be what the UFT necessarily wants, but facts on the ground, so to speak, makes testing the default assessment for the remaining 20%.

So, while I understand that you were not necessarily alluding to testing, I don’t really see other assessments being implemented citywide that has the type of broad-based approval politicians like Bloomberg look for other than testing. I can’t imagine Bloomberg unveiling with a straight face to the voters of NYC something like portfolio or other performance-based assessments that have never been used on a scale of NYC.

In short, it seems like testing is the ONLY feasible option, politically, economically, logistically, that could possibly be instituted citywide.

If there is any light you can shed on this matter, it would be appreciated.

This all stems from the mysterious local student assessments that have yet to be worked out between the UFT and DOE. This 20 percent is part of that overall 40 percent that will determine whether or not teachers are found “ineffective”.

Leo Casey asserts that there is a long tradition of student assessments that are not standardized exams. A “consortium of high schools in NYC” have already been using them.


Have any of these assessments been used on the scale of the NYC public school system, the largest school system in the United States?


Let us assume non-test-based assessments are out there for every grade and subject. How are teachers going to be rated on the basis of these assessments? Who will grade these assessments in a way that can be worked into the teacher ratings? The teachers themselves? A committee of educators? An outside contractor?

These are the details that must be worked out in collective bargaining.

Can we really imagine Mayor Bloomberg jeopardizing his legacy as the “education mayor” by agreeing to a battery of “progressive” assessments that have not been implemented on this scale before? Will Commissioner King approve of this?

Mayor Mike and Commissioner King are going to push for the sure thing: testing.

Testing is the only performance assessment that has been used on a NYC scale. It is logistically simple and easily translatable into data. There is the added factor of testing being the cash cow that corporations with big lobbyists like Pearson stand to benefit from.

All of the political facts as they stand now point to King Test as the thing that will fill that remaining 20%.

What Leo Casey is proposing runs counter to every political fact surrounding education reform here in NYC and around the country.

While Leo Casey and the UFT might push for progressive assessments that are better for students, we all know what is best for students does not shape education policy anywhere in this country.

Education policy is shaped by Realpolitik.

The only reform feasible in the world of education Realpolitik is testing.