My wife and I have two children who are public school students in New York City. We, as many other parents do, had our eldest tested for admission to the city’s gifted and talented program. I’ll be honest – this child is exceptionally bright, but creative use of verbal language, imagination, story telling (our eldest’s strengths), are not really part of the tests used to qualify. Regardless, the score was high enough to qualify for a seat which was assigned by lottery.
Our youngest sat for this year’s examinations in January. Sibling preference in admission at the G&T programs meant that if that score had qualified as well both our children would be in the same school next year.
Our youngest missed by the smallest margin.
Now I must be clear about this. Our family does not deserve anyone’s sympathy. It was by sheer luck of a random drawing among the many children who qualified that got our eldest a seat. Our youngest was not owed a seat, and our zoned school is another one of the highest regarded schools in the city and is very close to the other school. We know families who schlep across town to three different schools in pursuit of the cherry that the NYC Department of Education has placed on top the public school system. Then there are the families whose kids qualify but for whom there are no seats because they’ve greatly overpromised what they can deliver. Then there is the entire issue of how so many of the qualifying students are concentrated in affluent districts in the city.
So we will be fine, but since we would prefer our family’s attention to concentrate on one school for as long as possible, we took the opportunity to make an appointment with the DOE to review our youngest’s test. That appointment was today, and we were given twenty minutes to sit with the exam and the answer key under the supervision of a DOE employee. It was actually a more helpful experience than I anticipated, and our DOE representative was really quite delightful and very skilled at explaining the tests and how they were administered. I can tell you the following: We found that our child was prone to picking distractors, especially as each section of the exam progressed. We found one indisputably incorrectly scored item which means the exam is flagged for an immediate rescore. We also found a handful of items that I strongly suspect would make my friends in measurement and quantitative methods cringe.
And that’s all that I can tell you.
You see, our child was assessed using the Otis-Lennon School Ability Test (OLSAT) and the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test (NNAT-2), both of which are products of Pearson, and in order to get a look at the examinations, I had to sign a non-disclosure form. Chew on that for a minute. An official of the New York Department of Education had me and my wife sign a form promising that we would not specifically or generally disclose the contents of an examination that was administered to our child for the purpose of selecting a public school. The contents of that examination, several of which arguably violate principles of good test design for young children, must be kept secret even though, of course, it will be redesigned for the next year’s exams and even though I can purchase any number of OLSAT related materials directly from Pearson.
I cannot even really blame Pearson here. They have developed the examination, and there is significant money at stake for them in a) keeping too much of their material from being seen by competitors and 2) making certain that people have to purchase exam related materials from them.
On the other hand, I have no trouble blaming craven politicians and bureaucrats who contracted Pearson and agreed to terms like this which are good for business, but bad for public discussion of education policy. What we did today allows my family to pursue our interests as a household, but it disallows any informed discussion with the broader community about the nature of measurements that determine substantial educational opportunities. And there are real discussions that ought to be had. This year, three times as many children qualified for seats in the coveted citywide G&T programs as there were seats available, but these qualified children are not randomly distributed across the city. Districts 2 and 3 in Manhattan combined for 623 of those Kindergarten aged children qualified for entry to citywide programs while districts 7,8, 9, 12 (The Bronx), 16, 23, 32 (Brooklyn), and 29 (Queens) had none. With an income segregation index of 57 in New York City, there is an important discussion to be had about the nature of these tests and whether they identify gifted or privileged children. But Pearson’s intellectual property is more important than that discussion.
Which is ironic given how eager New York was to join with InBloom, the data storage cloud service that was going to provide storage for student records and allow technology and publishing companies to mine that data to create products for sale. It was only the vigorous activism by advocates like Leonie Haimson on Class Size Matters that put enough pressure on Albany to halt the project, but it is by no means the only one that sees student data as a commodity.
What does it say that your child’s school records are able to be used without your consent for private purposes but that private materials with profound impact upon public school children and their opportunity must be protected?