First Person

The Envelope, Please: Checking My Common Core Math

Ten weeks ago, I made some predictions about New York City’s 2013 proficiency rates on the New York State English Language Arts and mathematics assessments — the first New York tests to be aligned with the challenging Common Core State Standards adopted (more or less) by about 45 states across the country. I relied on just two bits of information: (1) New York City’s 2012 proficiency rates; and (2) what happened in Kentucky when it shifted from its previous assessments to Common Core-aligned assessments. The predictions were not based on any knowledge of the specifics of the new assessments in New York, or what the Big Apple’s teachers were doing in their classrooms.

How did I do? The two charts below tell the tale. The first displays proficiency rates on the English Language Arts assessments in grades 3-8, overall and for particular demographic subgroups. The blue column is the 2012 proficiency rate; the red column is my prediction for 2013; and the yellow column is the actual proficiency rate in 2013. I underestimated overall proficiency by a bit, predicting that 22 percent of students in grades 3-8 would be classified as proficient, when in fact 26 percent fell into that category. But I was within one percentage point for black and Latino students, English language learners, and students with disabilities.

ELA-2013

In math, shown in the second chart, my prediction for 2013 was almost on the mark, as I had predicted a proficiency rate of 31 percent, and the actual rate was 30 percent. I wasn’t quite as accurate with the subgroups in math; I overestimated the percent of black and Latino students who would be classified as proficient by five percentage points, but missed the mark by only two or three percentage points for all of the other groups displayed in the chart.

Math-2013

What do my powers of prognostication mean? (Other than my opening a storefront on 72nd Street, where I will be happy to read your palm for $15…)

What my parlor trick reveals is that the distribution of scores on the new Common Core-aligned tests in New York is not news at all. And yet many people are behaving as though this is some seismic shift in education policy and practice. Of course, they are bringing their distinctive points of view to bear on their interpretations. Former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, for example, sees good news in the fact that the policies he championed for nearly a decade have resulted in fewer than one in five black and Latino students being classified as proficient in English Language Arts and mathematics. “While some may use lower test results to score political points and argue that we should abandon higher standards,” he intones, “this would do our kids a grave injustice.” Better, I guess, that we should use lower test results to score political points and argue that we should embrace higher standards.

And irrepressible Mayor Michael Bloomberg has no qualms about declaring victory whether scores increase, stay the same, or go down. The low proportions of city children classified as proficient “actually is some very good news,” he said, blaming the media for “not understanding the numbers.”

Here’s the dirty little secret: No one truly understands the numbers. We are behaving as though the sorting of students into four proficiency categories based on a couple of days of tests tells us something profound about our schools, our teachers, and our children. There are many links in the chain of inference that can carry us from those few days in April to claims about the health of our school system or the effectiveness of our teachers. And many of those links have yet to be scrutinized.

Does Mayor Bloomberg understand the numbers? Perhaps he’d care to share with us the percentage of children in each grade who ran out of time and didn’t attempt all of the test items, and the consequences of that for students’ scores. Or how well the pattern of students’ answers fit the complex psychometric models used to estimate a student’s proficiency. Or how precisely a child’s scale score measures his or her performance. Or how many test items had to be discarded because they didn’t work the way they were intended. Or what fraction of the Common Core standards was included on this year’s English and math tests — and what was left out.

These are just some of the factors in the production of the proficiency rates that have been the subject of so much attention. And the properties of the test are just one link in the chain.

Since I’m so good at prognostication: I predict that state test scores, in New York and elsewhere, will continue to be used as a basis for important policy decisions, despite the fact that test scores tell us just a little bit about the things we care about.

This post also appears on Eye on Education, Aaron Pallas’s Hechinger Report blog.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.