The Curious Case of New York State School Accountability Changes

CPE1 is a case in point.

There are about 2.6 million students who attend schools in New York State. 1.1 million of those students are in New York City, the nation’s largest school district. In a nation with 50 million children in public schools, that means about 5% of all children in the country go to a New York State public school.

So, when New York makes a major change to the way it holds public schools accountable, people notice. And the state did precisely that on January 17th, 2019. As reported by Andrew Zimmerman of ChalkBeat:

State officials released a new list of struggling schools Thursday including 124 in New York City, the first round of designations under a new method of identifying low-performing schools.

Eighty-four of the city’s schools are on the lowest rung — known as “Comprehensive Support and Improvement Schools” — and will be required to craft improvement plans approved by the state. The remaining 40 schools are only in need of “targeted” support and will face less intense oversight.

The lowest-performing schools were identified partly because they were in the bottom 10 percent of schools across the state on a combined measure of growth and proficiency on state tests — the biggest factor that went into their rating.

Zimmerman notes that state test scores factor more heavily into the new formula than they did historically. He is also quick to point out some of the incongruities that follow the changes. For instance, there are schools that were doing pretty well according to the old metrics but are now listed as among the worst in the state according to the new metrics. Subtle changes in standing are to be expected; strange changes merit pause. One example is Central Park East 1, an elementary school in East Harlem.

How can that be? How can it be that a school that does well by official measures one day suddenly performs so poorly the next? The tests themselves didn’t change very much. So what is going on? It is reasonable for students, parents, and the public to ask such questions, which are not just about the schools themselves, but equally about the integrity of the state’s method and motive.

In response to his school’s poor labeling, the principal of Central Park East 1, Gabriel Feldberg, penned a letter to his community explaining what appeared to be going on. For him, the state seemed to be choosing to calculate their new ratings using some odd math. He explained:

In short, Feldberg argues that Central Park East 1 was doing pretty well by official measures, not perfect but decent. The school’s strange reversal of status seems to stem from the way the state formula counts test scores. In the past, the scores of children whose families opted out of the tests were not significantly counted in the formula. Now they appear to be, though the state education commissioner, MaryEllen Elia, previously disputed such assertions.

Some are suggesting that the changes in measures are intentionally designed to punish schools with high opt-out rates. Others say that refining the quality of public education for all communities requires these kinds updates to the way quality is calculated. The state has a responsibility to offer greater context, making their measures and their motives more transparent.

If state officials want to cool the heat that is building around this issue, they can do two simple things. First, they can publish the formula (with annotations) they are using to calculate these new ratings. Show the public precisely where these scores are coming from and how they compare to the previous model. Second, the state can offer statewide school-level data about opt-out rates. Let me clarify that one. The state already provides data on district-level opt-out rates. (See here.) However, district-level data can mask which schools are actually opting out. Having school-level opt-out data will allow the public to see for themselves whether there is a correlation between opt-out rates at individual schools and which individual schools are now being labeled unsuccessful.

On a final note, what New York is experiencing is rooted in the fact that we as a nation do not have a shared understanding of the purpose of public education. And without that clear vision, educational progress will always be stunted. The case of Central Park East 1 offers a valuable example for the rest of the nation. We must radically reimagine the very questions we are asking about our public schools. After all, the right answers to the wrong questions are wrong answers–no matter how you measure it.

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