So, Governor Cuomo, about those proficiency levels….

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo caused a stir among education observers recently by commenting on the need for future changes to the New York state teacher evaluation system.  The Governor is quoted in The Buffalo News:

Cuomo said he sees value in the teacher rankings, but said critics who question how 94 percent of the state’s teachers can be “highly effective” or “effective” have a valid point.

“I’m excited that we started,” Cuomo said of the teacher evaluation system put into effect during the 2012-13 school year. “And I think once we start to study it and learn it and refine it – because there’s no doubt it needs refinement, not everybody can get an ‘A,’ it can’t be – I think it’s going to be a very valuable tool.”

But he conceded the system might need more scrutiny.

Critics of the teacher evaluations have pointed out the wide gap between the 94 percent of teachers who were rated “effective” or “highly effective” and the number of students failing to do well on state tests and in other measures of student success.

State law required school districts to negotiate with teacher and principal unions to create evaluation systems within certain state requirements, including using student performance on state tests as one measure of how well a teacher is performing.

“The way we’ve done it the first few years is they’re negotiated locally. There is no statewide negotiation,” Cuomo said during a meeting with editors and reporters at The Buffalo News. “Each district negotiates it’s own criteria within certain mandates. So the suggestion was the way they negotiated it may be too loose because everyone’s doing well, and I think that’s a valid question.”

While some education bloggers speculate that this means Governor Cuomo will join an aggressive campaign to push out more experienced teachers in his second term, I am more interested in the mentality that the Governor is demonstrating here.  It is one that assumes that if 30% of New York students are being rated as “proficient” and “highly proficient” on the new, Common Core aligned, tests, then it is impossible that 94% of New York teachers are rated as “effective” and “highly effective” even though the new evaluation system makes generous use of value added measures of teacher performance utilizing test scores.  It is a mentality that is shared by Campbell Brown and others seeking to eliminate teachers’ due process rights via ending teacher tenure.  In fact, this is almost precisely what Ms. Brown said when she appeared on Stephen Colbert’s show earlier this year.  Mercedes Schneider, a teacher, author, and blogger from Louisiana provided this transcript:

CB: So, if you look at, if you look at the, um, outcomes, student outcomes in New York, okay? So, 91 percent of teachers are around the state of New York are rated either “effective” or “highly effective,” and yet [SC: Sounds good.] 31 percent, [SC: Yep.] 31 percent of our kids are reading, writing, and doing math at grade level. How does that compute? I mean, how can you argue the status quo is okay with numbers like that??

This same viewpoint was central to Eva Moskowitz’s recent advertising blitz to expand charter schools in New York City for the alleged benefit of an estimated 143,000 students she claims are trapped in “failing schools.”  The key information supporting that claim?  A “report” from the charter school advocacy group “Families for Excellent Schools” that claims at a quarter of New York City schools only 10% of students “pass” the state exams.  The Daily News reported this as students failing to read and do math at “grade level” like Ms. Brown did, and others repeatedly say that the students do not “pass” their exams.

The examinations, however, say no such thing.

It is important to recall that the examinations are aligned with the Common Core State Standards which invoke the language of “College and Career Readiness.”  In fact, New York’s Common Core testing consortium is PARCC, which stands for “Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.”  New York has been administering exams aligned with the new standards for two years now, and students are assessed as “highly proficient,” “proficient,” “partially proficient” and “not proficient” on a 1-4 point scale.  The result of the examinations has not been exceptional according to many observers, including the Governor.  In the 2012-13 school year, the first year of the new examinations, student proficiency levels dropped from 55% overall for English Language Arts to 31% and remained there in the 2013-2014 school year.  In mathematics, a proficiency level of 65% in 2011-2012 dropped to 31% in 2012-2013 and rose slightly last year to 36%.  The numbers are even lower for students who belong to ethnic minorities or who are from economically disadvantaged families.  African American students plunged from a 37% proficiency level in English to 16% in the first year of examinations, and Hispanic students fell from 40% to 18% with students from poor families tracking closely to these numbers.

However, these percentages are absent context if we do not understand how “proficient” is determined, and that determination was plainly designed to get percentages like this.  Carol Burris, an award-winning principal from South Side High School, makes it very clear that Commissioner John King set the cut scores at different levels of proficiency based on data designed to reflect SAT scores that are loosely correlated with “successful” completion of freshman level college English and mathematics courses.  Although the use of the SAT is dubious and the definitions of “success” in college level courses arbitrary, it was no surprise that the proficiency levels of the new exams closely tracked the target SAT levels.  As Principal Burris notes:

After coming up with three scores — 540 in math, 560 in reading and 530 in writing– the College Board determined the percentage of New York students who achieved those SAT scores. Those percentages were used to “inform” the cut score setting committee.  As the committee went through questions, according to member Dr. Baldassarre-Hopkins, the SED helpers said,  “If you put your bookmark on page X for level 3 [passing], it would be aligned with these data [referring to the college readiness data],” thus nudging the cut score where they wanted it to be.

When the cut scores were set, the overall proficiency rate was 31 percent–close to the commissioner’s prediction.  The proportion of test takers who score 1630 on the SAT is 32 percent.  Coincidence?  Bet your sleeveless pineapple it’s not. Heck, the way I see it, the kids did not even need to show up for the test.

It is possible, I suppose, to argue that since the Common Core State Standards and the accompanying examinations ARE supposed to be tied to “college and career readiness” that there is nothing conceptually wrong with the examinations themselves producing much lower proficiency levels than previous exams.  Certainly, it is worth a vigorous discussion in public about what the exams are supposed to reflect and whether or not we want the criteria to be aimed at the population of New York students likely to go on to post-secondary education.  Just to make this more interesting:  the percentage of New York state residents over the age of 25 in possession of a bachelor’s degree?  32.8%.   So Commissioner King’s cut scores discovered roughly the population of the state likely to continue into higher education.

One thing should be very clear from this:  Levels 3 and 4 in the Common Core aligned examinations do NOT, have not, and will not align with “grade level” performance at ANY level of the New York school system (unless you want to argue that most NY residents without a BA graduated high school BELOW grade level), and if you have been talking as if they do, you need to stop.  Yesterday.

It is also possible to argue that our nation requires more college educated citizens in order to properly serve the needs of a 21st century economy.  Certainly, Professor Anthony Carnevale of Georgetown University believes so, and he believes that the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ estimate that only 27% of the jobs in the economy will require a BA by 2022 is “frighteningly low.”  Professor Carnevale and his colleagues at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce believe that by 2020, the economy will require 35% of the workforce will require a BA or higher.  This argument is predicated, in part, on the existence of a “college wage premium” that has grown in recent decades because employers are paying graduates with college degrees a higher wage than their non-college educated peers.  While the college wage premium is real and has grown since the late 1970s, the conclusions from Georgetown are not universally accepted.  To begin with, over 98% of job gains between 2007 and 2011 were made by those with advanced degrees beyond a bachelor’s.  Additionally, large numbers of today’s graduates with a bachelor’s are being hired into jobs that traditionally do not require a full four years of college, and while Georgetown’s study found that demand for college educated workers outstripped supply, the college wage premium they cite as evidence has been stuck for ten yearsBased on data from Pew Social trends, it is evident that much of the benefit of going to college is made up of the collapsing wages for non-college graduates rather than intense market competition for those with college degrees into jobs that require them:

SDT-higher-education-02-11-2014-0-03

Suffice to say, this is still an issue that is subject to appropriately vigorous debate, and it is unlikely we can look at the current number of college educated New Yorkers and say with certainty that it is sufficient or insufficient.

Another argument aims at a much harder nut to crack: the persistent imbalance in college attendance and completion by students who are ethnic minorities and who grow up in poverty.  Even with the newly designed examinations, white and Asian students far outperformed other cohorts of students, demonstrating something else that we know: while the number of minority students in higher education has been rising from the mid-1970’s until today, white students still make up 61% of American college students.  Hispanic students currently represent 14% of college students, and African American students make up 15%.  While these numbers roughly approximate these groups’ percentages in the general population of Generation Y, they do not reflect how decreased opportunities for higher education concentrate in urban, predominantly minority, communities. While that is a conversation and debate we ought to be having, past experience with Governor Cuomo suggests that he would steer the conversation towards more charter schools, even though the charter school segment as a whole did no better than the rest of the education system on the new exams.  The Governor certainly is not eager to discuss how his budgets have forced schools to work with dwindling resources, and he has continued to use what were originally designed as emergency budget measures to keep the state’s ledgers balanced without tax increases — on the backs of poor and rural schools.  So while it would be worthwhile to discuss how to extend genuine educational opportunity to more and more students, especially those in districts afflicted with urban and rural poverty, there is really no indication at all that Governor Cuomo is interested in a full-throated debate on the topic.

Instead, he wants to revisit the state’s teacher evaluation system because he believes that with state examination results like we have seen in recent years, many more teachers must be incompetent than the current system detects.

In the classic film “Casablanca,” Captain Louis Renault is ordered by his German overseer to close Rick’s American Cafe on any grounds he can find.  Captain Renault, played by the incomparable Claude Rains, closes the cafe on the grounds that he is “shocked, shocked to find out that gambling is going on in here” — immediately before he is handed his winnings for the evening.  Governor Cuomo wants us to believe that we must get even tougher on teachers in New York because of state exam results that a) reflect what we already know about the likely college bound population of New York students and b) that are the direct result of his commissioner pegging proficiency levels to college performance.

I am not sure what his “winnings” are in this act of hypocrisy, but he doesn’t rise to Claude Rains’ level of charm in performance.

4 Comments

Filed under Common Core, politics, Social Justice

4 responses to “So, Governor Cuomo, about those proficiency levels….

  1. Pingback: Andrew Cuomo Makes it Official: He’s at War With Teachers | Daniel Katz, Ph.D.

  2. Pingback: A New Year’s Resolution for Ed “Reformers” — Remember Our Future Teachers Are In The Schools You Are “Reforming” | Daniel Katz, Ph.D.

  3. Pingback: Does Andrew Cuomo REALLY Want Parents to Understand What is Happening With Education? | Daniel Katz, Ph.D.

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