Assessment Opinion

A Dark Day for New York

By Diane Ravitch — February 21, 2012 6 min read
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Dear Deborah,

In New York, the politicians, the union leaders, and the media are all exchanging high fives over last week’s agreement about teacher evaluation. Gov. Andrew Cuomo took credit for forcing the parties to settle. But it’s a dark day when politicians impose an untested scheme on educators, despite a wealth of evidence that these schemes are inaccurate, unstable, and have negative consequences and no evidence that they improve education. See this and this. If we were serious about improving education for all children, we would take a broader view of the causes of and remedies for low achievement.

But the politicians have decided to solve our education problems not by looking at root causes but by firing teachers. They feel certain that we can fire our way to the top. In 2010, New York won a Race to the Top award of $700 million. To obtain this money—very little, if any, of which will ever reach any classroom or student—New York said it would devise a teacher evaluation plan that was based in part on student test scores. Although this idea finds little support among testing experts, it is an obsession with the current U.S. Department of Education. The winning New York proposal, in order to get the support of the teachers’ unions, said that 20 percent of teachers’ evaluations would be tied to student scores.

When states determine that test scores should count for 20 percent or 40 percent or 50 percent or some other percent, this is a purely arbitrary decision. There is no research, no experience, no evidence whatsoever that identifies what portion, if any, of a teacher’s evaluation should be based on the increase in their students’ test scores.

But the state’s winning proposal set the number at 20 percent. As the union and the state haggled, Gov. Cuomo intervened and said the proportion should be 40 percent. The union had already won a court decision upholding the earlier 20 percent, which was mutually agreed upon, but never mind.

Now, we enter the realm of pure politics, where issues derived from research or from any consideration of education implications become irrelevant. After Cuomo stepped in, the tabloids (the New York Post and the New York Daily News) wrote frequent and strident editorials demanding that the parties accept 40 percent, and that anything less would be a blatant capitulation to unaccountable teachers and their greedy union. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan informed New York that its Race to the Top winnings were at risk if it did not soon resolve the teacher evaluation issue.

Meanwhile, almost 1,400 principals (about a third of all principals across New York state) signed a petition to protest the educator evaluation system devised by the state education department.

Gov. Cuomo warned the unions that he would impose his own evaluation plan if they didn’t reach an agreement, and he said that any district that did not accept the evaluation plan would lose any new state funding. Is it not amazing that the governor, who has never taught and never evaluated teachers or principals, presumes to know how to evaluate teachers and principals?

Last week, with Cuomo’s deadline looming, the state and the unions reached an agreement. It says that 20 percent of teachers’ evaluation will be based on the state tests and another 20 percent on locally designed tests, or on the state tests used in a different way. (It’s the same scores, used for the same purpose; I have no idea how those scores might be used in “a different way,”) The remaining 60 percent is supposed to consist of classroom observations and other measures. All teachers must be rated on a scale from 0 to 100, using these multiple measures. This draconian point system will guarantee that a teacher with a perfect 60 out of 60 on teaching skill will nonetheless be judged “ineffective” if he or she is in the ineffective range on scores. As it now stands, the rating system is so bizarre that a teacher could be rated effective in all three categories and still be rated “ineffective” overall.

The agreement contains this strange sentence: “Teachers rated ineffective on student performance based on objective assessments must be rated ineffective overall.” Unless I can’t read plain English, this says that the 40 percent devoted to test scores overrides the other 60 percent. In other words, 40 percent is equal to 100 percent. The teacher who doesn’t raise test scores is ineffective. Oh, and state education Commissioner John King—who taught for three years and founded charter schools—will have the ultimate authority to review every district’s additional measures for rigor and quality.

Carol Burris, one of the leaders of the Long Island principals’ revolt, explained how this would work. (See here.) Gary Rubinstein, an experienced math teacher, felt certain that this whole edifice would soon collapse because of its absurdity.

This raises the stakes on high-stakes testing as they have never been raised before. Teachers will be graded on a curve, meaning many are in line to be fired for not raising test scores enough because they are competing with all other teachers. To deter narrowing the curriculum, the state plans to introduce many tests in many subjects, even in the arts and physical education. To gauge value-added, there will be pre-tests in the fall and post-tests at the end of the school year. Our schools will be test-centered in the extreme. Many days will be devoted to testing, not instruction.

Whence came this belief in the unerring, scientific objectivity of the tests? Only 18 months ago, New York tossed out its state test scores because the scores were unreliable. Someone in the state education department decided to lower the cut scores to artificially increase the number of students who reach proficient. No one was ever held accountable.

Now we are expected to believe that the state has made tests that are good enough to be decisive in firing teachers and ending their careers. Joseph D. Novak, in Learning, Creating, and Using Knowledge (Routledge), makes the shrewd observation that while the scoring of standardized tests may be objective (after all, they are scored by computers), the construction of the tests is highly subjective: “The test-maker chooses the specific subject matter content to be covered, the exact wording of the question, and the exact wording of the choices in multiple-choice exams.” It is the test-maker who subjectively decides “what will be accepted as ‘correct’ answers.” As New York demonstrated, even the scoring may be subjective, given state officials’ ability to set the cut scores wherever they wish.

But back to the politics: In addition to the parties involved, charter school supporters hailed the agreement, which was odd because teachers in charter schools will not be subject to its provisions.

And, of course, Secretary Duncan hailed the pact and urged other governors to follow Cuomo’s example. I am sure that Secretary Duncan knows that President Barack Obama wants teachers to “stop teaching to the test,” as he said in his State of the Union address, and to teach with “creativity and passion.”

Does anyone seriously believe that teachers in New York state will dare to stop teaching to the test? How many will be fired if they take that risk?

If you care about education—real education, where students are encouraged to think for themselves, not just take tests—and if you care about children, who will be subjected to unending test prep in every subject, and if you care about the long-term prospects for our society—which will not be improved by this scheme of measure-and-punish—this is a dark day for New York.


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