The Progress Myth is Dead and I'm Not Mourning
While the precipitous decline in New York City test scores and re-widening of the achievement gap may have come as a surprise to some, it shouldn't have shocked anyone who's actually been in a classroom during the Golden Age of Accountability. Reading The New York Times over the past few weeks has been both frustrating and redeeming, as it seems the truth behind New York City's "miraculous" gains is finally coming to light. Today I finally had the chance to see how the new test scores affected my students and me personally. As you can expect, it wasn't pretty, but then again, the truth often isn't.
Before I talk about what the numbers mean to me and in general, let me first lay them out. Of the 18 students in my class who took the English language arts exam, six scored a 1 (below grade level), eight scored a 2 (approaching grade level), and four scored a 3 (at grade level). Of the 19 students who took the math test, five scored a 1, seven scored a 2, four scored a 3, and three scored a 4 (above grade level). That means 22 percent of my students who took the reading exam met grade-level standards, and 39 percent of my students met grade-level standards in math.
What do these scores tell me? First I will say that these scores are a much more accurate indication of my students' performance levels than any scores I have seen before. While they are definitely lower than "expected," those expectations were based on previous models of scoring, which as we now all know were deeply flawed. The scale scores and proficiency ratings are difficult to evaluate without any baseline assessment. Yes, there is Acuity data to compare them to, but those are far from a reliable assessment, especially for students reading two or more grades below level. Ultimately, I need to rely more on my own assessments like endlines, E-CLAS, and running records to determine my students' growth. Except for a few surprises, the official test scores don't tell me anything I didn't already know.
What I do know is that at the beginning of the school year only two of my students were reading at grade level. According to this year's assessment, four of my students met grade level standard on the reading test. That is an accurate assessment. While a few of the 1's in my class were surprising, I don't feel it's an unfair score knowing what I know about those students' reading and test-taking abilities. All of my students made a year's growth or more in reading based on E-CLAS and Fountas and Pinell running record assessments. I can be proud of that. And yet, a year's growth wasn't enough to bring most of my students to grade level or above. They needed two and in some cases three years progress to get there. I'm not proud of my students scores. How could I be? But for the first time I feel the score reflects reality.
In math it's a similar story. While there were more 1's in my class than there would have been in 2009 or earlier, the numbers this year are the most honest I've ever seen. At the time of the test I had students who still hadn't mastered basic addition and subtraction, and students who could not think their way through word problems. When that is the case, a student should not be given a score of passing or higher, and yet in the past, they often were. These scores were a tough blow to teachers, principals, and most likely Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein, but from my perspective, in a strange way, I feel great about them. We're no longer cheating children and their parents by disguising low performance behind a flawed and sometimes arbitrary system of scoring.
So what does this mean for me? In some ways, nothing. I have always struggled with the test scores because I didn't think they told me anything. Students scored 2's who were reading at grade level or had mastered grade level standards in math, and other students who were way behind scored 3's. With a few minor exceptions, I am looking at the scores and seeing what I already knew. The case that confirms this best for me is with a student of mine who did not speak English fluently and couldn't add or subtract by the end of the school year. Last year her scale scores would have gotten her 2's in both ELA and math. This year she scored 1's in both. Again, am I proud of her performance? Absolutely not, but at least I know the system we are using to judge our students' performance is closer to reality than ever before.
Still, the scores aren't totally meaningless to me. On a practical level they affect me deeply, because they will be used to grade my effectiveness as a teacher, and this is where the anxiety and confusion starts to sink in, because I don't know how my performance will be judged now that the proficiency ratings have changed completely. The likelihood that I will be judged average or even below average feels much higher, but I must admit in the end, it doesn't matter, because nobody, not even Mayor Bloomberg has higher expectations for my performance than I do.
If all my students scored 3's this year, I wouldn't feel any better, because I know they aren't all at grade level. What frustrated me most about the old scoring system was the way in which teachers and schools used them to lie to themselves about their students. I remember in 2009 when scores skyrocketed across the city. Suddenly we had all figured it out? And yet, how come the students coming into our classrooms in September weren't reading at level? How come they couldn't multiply or divide with efficiency? For many schools in New York City the deflated test scores shattered the myth that had been created. It's painful, but it's necessary. Now, it's time to figure out how to help our students truly succeed.