I am still sorting those boxes full of old letters, records and newspaper clippings! It is hard not to keep stopping and examining the past more carefully. In an odd way it makes me feel better to realize that "I've heard that song before." The education headlines are indeed the old familiar score (see below). Of course, it could also be discouraging. But it reinforces my determination to sustain the work based on the data that matters most: the actual life histories of the human beings schools reach. "You can't take that away from me," I remind myself. In the end we each have to make some judgments about what "counts" most to us.
Meanwhile, we keep "counting" in ways that defy quite ordinary common sense. Examples:
[Headline] City Cheats on Reading Test: "The mayor has turned the Chancellor's smashing two-year increase in the citywide test into 'the single most important achievement' of his administration." From the Village Voice. By Wayne Barrett.,
"It was not surprising that the city's scores had risen dramatically… the test the city uses is designed to do that… There is some concern that the children learn the art of passing tests, according to Ida Echavarria, director of testing" reports the NY Times.
Both the above from June 1981.
Just days before the 1981 scandal broke, even astute Albert Shanker's column in the NY Times was blasting testing critics and praising NYC's high scores, noting proudly that Washington D.C. students had made similarly big gains. Yes, it requires, he said, "special efforts to overcome" poverty, but "as the recent scores in NYC and D.C. show… the greatest gains were made by minorities and the poor in some of our very toughest neighborhood schools." No further comment after the expose.
I arrived in NYC in 1967 and had been an unwitting supporter of testing as a parent, teacher and local school board member. I was even part of a cabal (led by Ann Cook and Herb Mack) to "expose" Chicago's secret test scores a few years earlier. I was, like Diane Ravitch, a believer. It took experiences that involved both my own children and those I taught in central Harlem to wake me up. The kids and their scores did not match what I knew about them, and NYC's wild fluctuations led me to became an amateur expert on standardized testing. (Go to deborahmeier.com for a list of my writings on standardized testing.)
For example, between 1974 and 1975 scores took an amazing turn: going from 33.8% reading on or above grade level to 43.3% in 1975. A year later the headline in the NY Times noted "A Slight Decline in Reading in New York Schools," although the Times noted that the decline was from 1975 which had shown "surprisingly high achievement by pupils compared with earlier years." What changed? The test publisher. So, the next year the Board of Education contracted with still another test publisher. Guess what? Next year: we all did better.
In 1979 the NY Times front page noted that "City Pupils Remain Behind in Reading." But there was improvement. Although a different test was used that year so comparisons were hard to make, said reporter Ed Fiske.
In 1984 Gene Maeroff noted that more than 50% were now reading above grade! Victory? An improvement in less than 10 years from below 40% to over 50% reading on grade level. None of my high school teaching friends saw any sign of change in their students who had so miraculously scored better during their elementary years.
A year later Joyce Purnick reported "Reading Scores Fall in City for the First Time in 5 Years" The Chancellor said "that reading experts had told him the version of the test given this year was more difficult… but suggested that the teacher shortage may also have contribute to the dip in scores." The Chancellor said "he would meet with a committee to determine… whether to use a different test entirely in the future."
And so it has gone for the 43 years I have been a NYC school test watcher. I was hardly surprised then to read the headlines a few weeks ago that informed us that in fact the latest test scores that the Mayor touted during his reelection campaign were… inaccurate. In fact, the latest data shows that we are more or less back where we started when Bloomberg became Mayor 8 years ago. The only difference this time is that the dips usually coincide with the appointment of a new Chancellor and Mayor Klein is still with us. But in the old days NYC controlled its own tests!
Dizzy from trying to follow these ups and downs?
Remember, these publicized scores went along with a lot of "deep" editorial analysis, plus hours of precious time spent in every school and district carefully dissecting each up and down by class, grade, teacher and kid. Teachers and schools were inundated with sure-fire commercial test prep programs—for doing better next year. And if you are a school teacher now, this should sound familiar.
Given that the tests used were all produced by equally reputable test makers, who promised that their tests were "normed" with expensive and extensive pre-testing, guaranteeing a high degree of reliability and reported measurement error, and built to measure the exactly same thing—how is this bizarre history possible?
When the switch was made from "norm-referenced tests" to so-called "criterion-reference" tests, I jokingly noted that this was another word for "politically" normed tests—with benchmarks set to meet a particular political agenda. But, since I suspected the old tests were also influenced by politics, criterion-referenced seemed a step forward. However, they came with another decision—to report scores simply as a 1, 2 ,3 or 4. Period. The difference between a high 3 and a low 3 being indistinguishable, and thus a move from a 3 to 4 might indicate almost no change—except in headlines.
The climax of this story? Last fall, 2009—before the Mayoral election—we witnessed the claim that another rise had taken place in the 8-year upward curve of test scores under the Mayor's reign. But—another report this summer has uncovered a new truth—actually test scores this year were back where they were before Bloomberg became Mayor 8 years ago.
I hope this explains why my expertise has convinced me not to believe data collected by any city or state or Federal DOE (domestic or international)—re attendance, drop-outs or so-called achievement. I know what goes on behind the scenes—at what hour one takes attendance matters, what constitutes a drop-out depends on how you record it. Like "achievement" they are equally subject to Campbell's Law. The data declines in value the more high stakes attached to them.
I am not anti-data—but I want the real stuff. More on that next time.