NY BATs Open Letter to NY Commissioner Elia
Dear Commissioner Elia,
Welcome to your new office, where we hope to begin meaningful open discussions about the harms of standardized testing in education policy. New York needs a commissioner who will listen to students, parents, educators and taxpayers and "show your work" so the public can understand the decisions made in the Department.
NY BATs are the state chapter of the 55,000-strong Badass Teachers Association, formed two years ago. NY BATs is the largest state chapter with over 3,300 member educators and we are vocal members of our local communities working to inform state and local policymakers on the in-classroom consequences of policies influenced by so many non-educators.
Allied with parent groups, we encourage active engagement in education and electoral debates via a large, resolved grassroots presence. We reject practices coming from the business sector which seek to transform education into assembly line models of efficiency suited for McDonalds hamburgers, just when research tells us the opposite is needed for live children. It is with these goals we ask your office for reasoned rebuttal to specific research indicating these policies are invalid for their stated purposes:
WHY CAN'T YOU BE LIKE SUZIE: The most basic philosophy driving NY's Common Core implementation says that if all learners within a one-year age range do not test in math and ELA on par with college-bound high achievers on pace to exceed an SAT score of 1600, then their most current teacher is to be held accountable, invoking a ladder of punishments.
But established science in the field of child development has always cautioned educators that the individual pace of physical, cognitive, expressive and social-emotional growth in individual children naturally varies widely, due to a host of factors. So we have our first clash between reality and policy. Where do you stand on government mandated benchmarks for child development?
LET'S RUN SOME TESTS: For well over a decade, NCLB has promised that paying outside vendors to administer tests will somehow help low-performing schools, but as the measuring has increased in cost and scope, in-classroom support has never come. Instead, we've seen threats and sanctions for schools which hinge on provably inaccurate metrics. All along, Census data alone was sufficiently showing policymakers where to direct aid. But helping impoverished kids was never the true goal, it was the testing itself, awarding billions annually to contractors who fund political campaigns. Where do you stand on the pay-for-play that has compromised the independence of NY's education policymakers?
FEEL LUCKY? Multiple choice questions allow a one in four guess of a correct answer, even when the question has not been read or understood. This alone introduces wholesale inaccuracy into a formula supposedly measuring the ability of individual teachers. Whether it’s informed guesses or purely random, are luck and chance acceptable in professional assessments informing personnel decisions?
THE SUPER-TEACHER: NY's growth measures also elude scientific reliability by ignoring home-based factors that increase or impede learning. For example, if a family hires a team of private tutors to help a child make gains in math, APPR blindly credits the classroom teacher. Even when tutoring is subsidized by the state, there is no accounting for which students partake, or for how long, throwing outcome-based comparison into the arbitrary. Similarly, academic help that comes from mom, dad, peers, previous teachers or even Khan Academy goes untabulated in a system that looks only at the last teacher in the room.
EYES CLENCHED SHUT: Conversely, if a student is abused at home, causing their ELA scores to plummet, we fault their classroom teacher in a "no excuses" landscape built on shutting out reality and individualized attention. Giving only lip service to social-emotional factors, the purveyors of VAM devised "norming" schemes, grouping students together in three categories - English learners, students with disabilities and students living in poverty.
LUMPING KIDS TOGETHER: Because there are no graduated scales for these catch-all designations, they massively broad-brush students. ELL status lumps together those who have been practicing English for years with those who don't know a single phrase. IEPs vary broadly from high and low functioning ability, making this designation mask as much as it reveals. Similarly with impoverished students, variances high and low are mushed into one monolithic checkbox.
NY’s version of VAM, called APPR, has it’s official Technical Report for Growth Measures (2013-14) document here. APPR aggregates and tracks the percentages of ELL, IEP and impoverished students without explaining how this is "considered" in ranking scores. It also disregards factors like chronic absence or how many aren't even trying on test day. APPR acknowledges "peer effects" in the trajectory of students in schools with high proportions of ELLs, but ignores critical obstacles to learning, such as drugs or gang activity, court-involved families, homelessness, transience and more. Some of NY's neediest students are in educational crisis due to loss, or trauma such as abuse or neglect. Factors like this are crucial because the ripple effects affect entire classes, grades and schools, monopolize resources and can slow learning every period of every day.
THE BIRTH LOTTERY: From conception, factors like nutrition and the home environment shape ability and the pace of a child’s cognitive and expressive development. Children read to by parents and exposed to rich vocabulary and cultural experiences have obvious advantages over kids with unstable home lives, toxic stress, housing or food uncertainty, incarcerated family members, or other real-world considerations not acknowledged by APPR.
GROWTH INACCURACY: Performance by different student cohorts naturally varies greatly from year to year. Yet APPR purports to measure "change in learning between two points in time". But when we use a student score achieved with one teacher as a baseline to measure the next year's scores under a different teacher, it’s an uncontrolled variable. So a teacher who happens to follow a below-average teacher is rewarded, while a teacher who follows an above-average teacher is punished. This creates perverse incentives to work one grade above a horrible teacher in the same subject, and makes teachers avoid following great teachers, in order to game a system they don’t believe in. The desperation caused by high stakes and the greed associated with cash bonuses remind us how often schools showing the greatest gains turn out to be the subject of cheating investigations.
TOXIC TEST SCORES: NY’s evaluations make it harder for inner city schools to hire good teachers. Candidates know they’ll be held responsible for predictably low scores, so they seek other schools (or leave the profession). In protest, some NY districts don’t show teachers their scores, or inflate observations scores to compensate, shielding teachers from arbitrary and capricious test-based rankings.
We agree with the six-Regent position paper published in June, requesting that APPR should be suspended for reexamination. Like VAM formulas used nationally, APPR models used to calculate teacher proficiency are, according to their own authors, based on assumptions, estimates and predictions with significant disclaimers written right in. For example, APPR says on page 16:
"The results of growth models are used to measure the effects of educators on student learning gains, taking into account a student’s prior achievement; however, some factors outside of an educator’s control may impact student learning gains. For example, different learning trajectories are often statistically related to students living in poverty, beyond what would be expected based only on the student’s prior achievement.”
In the impending lawsuit by Long Island teacher Sheri Lederman, APPR is now headed into court, (hopefully to be debated by qualified experts without financial stakes linked to their opinions). But even the layman can see curious practices. For example, on page 3, we see that students have their math and ELA scores combined together. Can you explain why?
"The New York growth models use test scores in each subject area as a predictor for that subject area (e.g., mathematics scores are used to predict mathematics scores). In addition, the other subject’s scores are used because they reflect the general achievement of the students prior to the outcome year (e.g., ELA scores are used in mathematics models and vice versa)."
A look through the 157 pages shows that APPR built-in "error rates", using two competing theoretical models akin to sports betting formulas, with sliding "confidence ranges" that produce a 1-20 score purporting to encapsulate the quality of a whole year of teaching through bubble test scores. We ask for your comment on the research:
THE EXPERTS SPEAK: A preponderance of relevant authorities have declared APPR unreliable for its stated purposes. In NY, the Lower Hudson Council of School Superintendents and the Westchester Putnam School Boards Association commissioned an independent study in 2014, concluding it is a “governmental travesty" wasting untold millions across the state and called for review and redesign of APPR.
This followed a major national report questioning VAM by the American Statistical Association in April 2014. Another May 2014 report by the American Educational Research Association funded by Bill Gates informed his eventual call for a moratorium on high stakes decisions based on Common Core tests.
A 2012 review of researcher Jesse Rothstein's 2010 "falsification" trials concluded VAM was unfit for prime time. Rothstein then issued a review of Gates’ MET research project in January 2013, confirming VAM’s unreliability. Years worth of RAND Corporation reports are oft-cited but this 2011 report noted specific erroneous assumptions in VAM models.
This report by the National Association of Secondary School Principals aggregates much research finding VAM unreliable. The NY Principals Paper on APPR was signed by over a third of NY’s principals back in 2011, showing that NY’s field practitioners weighed in on this long ago, leaving it more a matter of legislative denial and political stonewalling that subjects us to these metrics. We now ask your informed opinion.
POLITICAL ORIGINS: We cannot forget this latest incarnation of APPR was rushed in as the four previous versions were, unvetted, and tied to badly needed funding in a must-pass budget agreement. Should NY’s evaluation systems be linked to state funding, adopted as part of tense “blackmail” budget negotiations?
PARENTS SAY NO: Skewing results further, the record number of students refusing tests mean fewer tests will be used, with predominantly higher performing students taken out of the mix, but NYSED will nonetheless compare teachers across the state. Is this acceptable?
LUMPING TEACHERS TOGETHER: As inaccurate as APPR is for math and ELA teachers, NY's "group measures" policy actually evaluates teachers using test scores in subjects they do not teach, from students they may not even know. Physical education, arts or foreign language instructors have math or ELA scores used in their evaluations, which is patently absurd. In NYC, all 70,000 plus teachers are assigned math or ELA scores regardless of subject taught. And state-approved APPR plans continue to use single-grade test results for evaluations of teachers across entire school districts, for example choosing the 9th grade Biology Regents.
While this may be agreeable to both sides, it’s not actually measuring individual teacher performance, misleading the public about the efficacy of the tests. Districts who developed SLOs for approval did so at their own expense, making the policy yet another unfunded mandate that saps local control. In all of NY’s 700+ different district APPR plans, no one knows what the other is doing, making legitimate comparison impossible. Unreliable and arbitrary, we ask why this data should be included in any percentage at all.
MANIPULATED: For years, NYSED has been criticized for changing cut scores after tests have been graded, but they also have been secretly withdrawing test items due to poor design or response, boosting scores by as much as 11% after-the-fact. Will you continue these practices?
COMMON CONFUSION: The implementation of Common Core has meant testing kids beyond appropriate grade level content, asking unanswerable questions and confusing students with multiple viable answers. Rigor and complexity increased sharply without additional support for students or effective training for staff. Founding Common Core contributor Dr. Louisa Moats noted how many teachers were unqualified to teach standards meant for the highest performing programs.
Pressured to test better, inner city schools are prevented from teaching students at their actual functioning levels. Thus, many students give up during the year or during testing, filling bubbles at random and leaving written responses blank. Afterwards, schools struggle with post-test apathy and deflation. Elsewhere, schools see weeks of precious instruction time displaced for exams, practice or scoring. Because the tests cannot be fully reviewed or shared, looking at raw scores after the end of the school year cannot help learners understand how to improve.
STUDENT SHAMING: Labeling 70-75% of children “not proficient” discourages students struggling with esteem issues in a self-fulfilling prophesy. NCLB has driven dropout rates up by making kids despise instruction time, displacing hands-on, minds-on experiences with unrewarding tests and stressful prep, which increases the numbers who tune out or act out. Did the governor even have a constitutional right to adopt Common Core without consulting the legislature, school boards or practitioners who see the effects up close?
CHARTER BAIT AND SWITCH: In NY, charter schools were sold as a vehicle to develop and replicate solutions for the larger system. The NY Charter Act of 1998 prominently includes a mandate to "[i]ncrease learning opportunities for all students, with special emphasis on expanded learning experiences for students who are at-risk of academic failure"
But instead of focusing on at-risk students, charters today enroll LESS than public schools, often "counseling out" disruptive students. This was detailed in "Apples to Apples" a report by the pro-charter Manhattan Institute in 2003, confirmed again in 2013 and many times since.
MISSION ABANDONED: Success is easier in schools who enroll the most savvy, involved parents in the neighborhood. But this leaves higher concentrations of the neediest students in district schools. Abandoning their original purpose, charters no longer even pretend to care about “disruptive” students, often refusing to backfill vacated seats and causing unsustainable levels of teacher churn and burn out. Charters are also used as Wall Street tax havens thanks to loopholes like the New Markets Tax Credit. Should charter schools continue to exclude the most at-risk students through intake processes that include pro-active lottery applications, and mid-year dismissals?
WE ALREADY KNOW: New Yorkers are acutely aware that centralized testing and evaluation policies are driven by lobbying, campaign cash, media spending and revolving door cronyism. We know your predecessor was in sync with wealthy political donors who have declared open season on public education. We remember too the transformation of the US health care system to "market based solutions" which stovepiped wealth to the large health insurers for decades. More recently, Wall Street has announced that education is the next frontier, eyeing school budgets for profit and franchisation.
With this fresh start, it is vitally important New York has a fighter in the Education Department to stand up to corporate influence and the pay-for-play that has seen so many legislators led astray or led away in handcuffs. As a former teacher, we hope you will reclaim public education for the public, and help us to go back into classrooms to teach, free from Albany's distractive, destructive policies. Most importantly, we hope you see that NY school children are being exploited for financial and political gain and stand with us in the fight against corruption. Will you?
Edited by NY BAT Jake Jacobs