A Tale of Two School Systems: The Impact of NYS Testing on NYC Public Schools


Here is my testimony from last night’s CEC 15/CEC 13 joint meeting about state testing. 

I am here tonight as both a District 15 parent of a third grader and as a District 15 ENL/ESL elementary school teacher.  Luckily as a parent, my daughter is in a school where the vast majority of students opt out and there is no test prep. However, as a teacher this is the hardest time of year for me. One reason I speak out against the Common Core-aligned state testing program is because it helps me to live with myself as a teacher who is forced to administer the math, English-language arts (ELA) and NYSESLAT (New York State English as a Second Language Achievement Test) assessments each spring- one after the other.  I watch kids suffer and shut down, and there’s nothing I can do about it. As a veteran teacher, I feel like a fraud, complicit in perpetuating an educationally unsound and racist testing program that is designed to harm, not help, our public schools. Common Core state testing is at the heart of corporate education reform. It’s the tool, the weapon, being used to privatize public education and dismantle teacher unions.  

To me, the test scores aren’t legitimate because they come from highly flawed assessments.  Any feedback I get from the testing company is unreliable because of the tests’ poor design, developmentally inappropriate content and ever-changing cut scores. However, authentic and meaningful classroom work, created by educators, not testing companies, paints a much more accurate picture of student progress. Furthermore, Common Core curriculum that prepares students for these tests is not innovative or transformative.  Its pedagogy is anti-democratic (see Nicholas Tampio’s critique of Common Core), and it’s highly scripted and formulaic. Context and real critical thinking are lacking, and the work itself is tedious. English-language arts, for example, relies heavily on excessive close reading.

Test scores also hinder school integration efforts.  Real estate agents use schools with high test scores to lure buyers and renters to certain neighborhoods.  Some affluent families in gentrifying neighborhoods use test scores to justify their rejection of schools whose students are largely Black, Brown and poor.  By design, test scores are used to unfairly label schools, students and teachers as “failing,” and they are used to close local schools in Black, Brown and poor neighborhoods.  This destabilizes communities and adds stress to the lives of families living there. This focus on raising test scores also takes us away from the messy – but URGENT – work we must do to address school inequity and segregation.  According to civil rights investigative journalist and District 13 parent, Nikole Hannah-Jones, the thinking is: “if we can just get the test scores up we don’t have to do anything about the fundamental inequality of segregated schools.” She also shared that her daughter is doing great in her low test score District 13 public school arguing that, “the scores aren’t even reflecting what’s being taught in that school.”  Nikole Hannah-Jones spoke at the Network for Public Education’s annual conference in Oakland, CA last October.  I encourage you to listen to her entire speech.

As we all know, there are two school systems in New York City.  Hannah-Jones calls this disparity “desperate,” and she’s cried over it.  So have I. So educationally unsound is Common Core test-centric schooling that I felt like I had no choice but to leave my beloved Title I school in East New York, my second home where I spent my first nine years as a teacher.  I am now in a District 15 school with high test scores and the differences between the two are striking.

NYC schools with low test scores face immense pressure to raise scores and therefore most decision-making revolves around this goal. No one wants to be on a focus school list, which results in greater scrutiny. Teacher morale in these schools is low and this trickles down to students.  Ask your child’s teachers how truly happy they are. The schools are top-down and undemocratic and the staff is micromanaged. There is little to no freedom to teach and learn in schools with low test scores. Schools with low test scores are constantly changing reading, writing and math programs, and they aren’t teacher-created or even teacher-selected.  Schools with low test scores are pressured by districts to adopt developmentally inappropriate and uninspiring test prep curriculum such as Pearson’s ReadyGEN. Pearson, as you may know, created the first batch of Common Core-aligned ELA and math assessments. In schools with low test scores, skills-based test prep begins in kindergarten, which completely disregards early childhood studies showing that “the average age at which children learn to read independently is 6.5 years” (Defending the Early Years).

In many schools with low test scores, there’s an almost heart-stopping sense of urgency to improve students’ performance in math, reading and writing.  As a result, these schools have limited choice time and no free play in the lower grades. Any type of play must have a literacy skill attached to it. There are fewer field trips, fewer enrichment programs and fewer (if any at all) school performances.  An inordinate amount of planning and organizing time is devoted to preparing for the state tests. Out-of-classroom teachers are pulled from their regular teaching program to administer and score the tests. Countless hours are spent bubbling testing grids.  In 2013, as an out-of-classroom ESL teacher, I lost 40 days of teaching to support this massive testing operation.

English-language learners (ELLs) are the most over-tested students in New York State and very few people – including educators – ever set eyes on the NYSESLAT, the annual ESL assessment given to English-language learners every spring following the state ELA and math tests. In fact, many parents of ELLs don’t even know their child is taking it. The NYSESLAT is arguably worse than the ELA test, and it is comprised of four testing sessions, which means four days of testing.  The kindergarten NYSESLAT has 57 questions.  The reading passages are largely non-fiction, and some of the topics are obscure, outside of the students’ everyday life experiences.  The NYSESLAT is more of a content assessment rather than a true language test. It’s also excessive in its use of close reading. The listening section, for example, requires students to listen to passage excerpts over and over again.  Testing at the proficiency level is the primary way an ELL can exit the ESL program. I have students, already overburdened by state testing, that will remain at the advanced (expanding) level on the NYSESLAT because they don’t score well on standardized tests.  Like the Common Core ELA test, the results of the NYSESLAT tell me nothing about what my students know.

Is this the type of schooling our communities want? I can tell you that educators by and large reject this top-down, one-size-fits-all, corporatization of public education. Shouldn’t community input be taken seriously? What is OUR definition of equity and excellence? Does it include high-stakes testing? The Journey for Justice Alliance offers a vision for sustainable community schools in low-income, Black and Brown neighborhoods throughout the United States: relevant, rigorous and engaging curriculum that allows students to learn in different ways, project-based assessments, supports for high quality teachers, smaller class sizes and teacher aides, appropriate wraparound support for students, including opportunities for inspiration and access to things students care about, a student-centered school climate, quality restorative practices and student leadership opportunities, transformative parent engagement, and inclusive school leadership which considers content knowledge and community knowledge (Jitu Brown, North Dakota Study Group’s annual conference, Tougaloo College, Jackson, MS, 2/16/18). As Camden, NJ organizer Ronsha Dickerson put it, “We want what we need, not what you want to give us.” This, to her, is real equity.   



Who’s Afraid of the Project Kids?: The Struggle to Integrate NYC Public Schools

In March, I wrote a blog post that detailed 10 reasons why no student in New York State should take the Common Core English-language arts (ELA) and math tests.  On reflection, I should have added that so-called low test scores are being used by many to label largely minority and Title I schools* as “failing” and therefore undesirable.  Some of these schools are located in gentrifying areas and a number of white and/or relatively affluent, professional parents are rejecting them.  The proposed rezoning of schools in the Brooklyn Heights/Dumbo area has been in the local news lately.  Here’s what one parent at P.S. 8, with a 15% poverty rate, had to say about P.S. 307 (85% poverty rate), which is located across the street from the Farragut Houses public housing complex in the Vinegar Hill neighborhood.  This quote is from an article that appeared in The Wall Street Journal on 9/22/15.

People who moved into Dumbo and Vinegar Hill “trusted they had an education strategy at least through primary school,” said Teresa Hohl, a P.S. 8 parent. “All of a sudden…they’re now going to be pushed into 307, which is completely underperforming in comparison.” “Rezoning Plan for Two Brooklyn Schools Riles Up Parents,” The Wall Street Journal, 9/22/15.

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IMG_9015Top left photograph is of P.S. 307.  The top right photograph is of the Farragut Houses opposite P.S. 307. The bottom photo shows P.S. 8’s main entrance.  All photos were taken by me. 

I know that not all Brooklyn Heights/Dumbo parents feel this way.  However, quite a few do and it’s problematic for area schools.  Not only does it hinder efforts to desegregate our schools but such comments imply that the lives of black, brown and low-income students hold less value.  They perpetuate a socioeconomic hierarchy in which white and/or affluent and professional individuals put themselves at the top.  Do they not think that their children could learn from black and Hispanic students? Did this parent ever visit P.S. 307? Did she talk with P.S. 307 parents and educators? Is her assessment of the school based solely on NYS Common Core ELA and math scores, which – as we know – come from highly flawed, unreliable tests that do not come close to painting an accurate picture of how a school functions.  What’s even more troubling is that some of these parents support the opt-out movement.  Yet, they are using the very same test scores they denounce to justify not wanting to send their kids to a school with a large number of low-income students of color.

I know teachers at P.S. 307 and have visited the school. I have heard great things about it under the strong leadership of the former principal, Roberta Davenport. A teacher not affiliated with the school recently told me that she would work for Davenport in a heartbeat.  P.S. 307 is an innovative STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) magnet school.  Each classroom has a living environment, and discovery learning is stressed through hands-on experiences.  Additionally, P.S. 307 has partnered with reputable organizations such as the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility and Lutheran Hospital.  SEL (social and emotional learning) topics are included in the school’s curriculum, and a school-based health center is available for students in need of counseling and other services.  P.S. 307 also offers instruction in Mandarin, and violin classes.

As a NYC public school teacher who has only worked in Title I schools, I can tell you that the vast majority of teachers try their best to give each student what he or she needs to grow academically and emotionally. It is not an easy job, and we face many hurdles, but we want to challenge each student at his or her own level regardless of the school’s status (Title I or otherwise).  In my 10 years in the system, I have not witnessed this so-called culture of low expectations.  Therefore, I don’t buy this argument that by enrolling in P.S. 307, which offers a wide range of quality programs and opportunities, the children of white and/or affluent, professional parents will receive a compromised education. Indeed the school’s test scores will remain lower than those at P.S. 8, but didn’t we already establish that the scores are meaningless? In no way should these Common Core test scores be used to judge a school.  Parents need to visit the school, observe the teaching going on in the classroom, talk to parents, and find out how the principal runs the school.

Resistance to the city’s rezoning plan for this part of Brooklyn also include some current P.S. 307 parents who – among other concerns – express fear that the school’s Title I funding will vanish as more higher-income students enroll in the school.  This happened at P.S. 9 in Prospect Heights.  No longer a Title I school, the PTO (parent teacher organization), which is comprised largely of white, professional parents, has developed an ambitious fundraising plan to make up for the loss of this funding source.  Initiatives such as the annual fall carnival and Friday movie nights also help to bring the community together.

The tragic ordeal that Manhattan’s P.S. 191 faced over the summer is another example of flawed official data being used by white and/or affluent, professional parents to argue against enrolling in a neighborhood Title I school.  On August 20, Emily Frost of DNAinfo reported that this Upper West Side school was mislabeled “persistently dangerous” by the New York State Education Department.  The story is complex; incident reports were miscoded, for example, and the case was mishandled by the New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE).  You can read more about it here. In fact, the most egregious incident – involving rape and sexual assault by a 22-year-old after-school program staffer- occurred after hours at P.S. 191’s middle school.  For the purposes of this piece, however, I wish to point out that P.S. 191, which draws many low-income students of color from the Amsterdam Houses public housing complex, has been fighting a reputation stigma for years and this recent mislabeling adds another roadblock to filling seats at this dynamic elementary school.

I have visited P.S. 191 and know teachers there.  They are dedicated and hard-working and some have enrolled their own kids in the school.  P.S. 191 is a museum magnet school.  It boasts a new technology lab and strong partnerships with local museums.  The arts are prioritized as is project-based learning.  Like P.S. 307, there’s a lot of good things happening at P.S. 191 and official data falls short of telling the whole story.

What I predict will happen in the Brooklyn Height/Dumbo area is that a larger number of white and/or affluent, professional parents will choose to send their children to area charter schools like the International Charter School of New York in downtown Brooklyn and nearby Success Academy Fort Greene.  While minority students attend these charter schools, the perception is that unruly and undesirable behavior that might be exhibited by project kids at local public schools is not an issue at schools like Success Academy that also boast high test scores.  At P.S. 191, for example, there has been a white flight to  Success Academy Upper West.  If, over the next few years, P.S. 307 experiences an influx of higher income students due to the rezoning of Brooklyn Heights/Dumbo, what will happen to the kids who live at the Farragut Houses directly across the street? Will they be rezoned to nearby P.S. 287, which is 90% Hispanic and black? Will the under-enrolled P.S. 287 be seen as a dumping ground for poor students of color while P.S. 307 turns into a largely white, affluent P.S. 8-type school?

School segregation has been a hot topic not just here in New York City, but nationally too.  There has been much discussion of This American Life’s episode 562: The Problem We All Live With (July 31, 2015) in which Nikole Hannah-Jones, a reporter for the New York Times Magazine, argues that integration is the key to closing the achieving gap but since 1988, re-segregation has been the trend in U.S. public schools.  In fleshing this out, Hannah-Jones details the accidental and short-lasting integration of Francis Howell High School, a mostly white public school in St. Charles, Missouri.  When Francis Howell parents found out that black students from Normandy High School in St. Louis would be allowed to transfer to their school, they were upset.  Thousands packed into Francis Howell’s gym to hear arguments against the plan.  Francis Howell parents argued that Normandy kids were dangerous and would make the school unsafe and drug-infested. They worried that Normandy kids would lower Francis Howell’s test scores. Had any of these parents been to Normandy High School? Did they know any Normandy parents or teachers? If the Francis Howell parents had gotten to know the Normandy community, would they have been welcoming? Their fears, not surprisingly, proved unwarranted. I wonder how many affluent Brooklyn and Manhattan parents listened to this public radio program and called into question their own prejudices?

Here in New York City, Hannah-Jones – together with Brad Lander, NYC councilman – appeared on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show on August 20 to discuss school integration initiatives, specifically “controlled choice,” which is detailed in this New York City Council School Diversity Accountability Act.  More recently, on September 16, Hannah-Jones participated in a panel on school diversity at the Brooklyn Historical Society.  Unfortunately, I was unable to attend but I look forward to watching the video of the discussion, which will be posted soon on the Brooklyn Historical Society’s Vimeo page.

Education, especially at the elementary school level, is not just about academics.  It is irresponsible of policymakers to distill it down to data such as ELA and math scores and flawed school safety reports.  The goal of educators is to make the world a better place, which includes heightening students’ awareness of the injustices of life. Segregation does a disservice to our students.  Despite growing up in diverse New York City, how many white and/or affluent kids truly know and appreciate what it’s like to live in poverty and to face racism on a daily basis? We live in silos and fail to deeply get to know one another.  How can we create innovative, effective strategies to solve societal ills if we rely on superficial data, preconceived notions and our own self-interests to drive our decision-making?

*Title I, Part A (Title I) of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, as amended (ESEA) provides financial assistance to local educational agencies (LEAs) and schools with high numbers or high percentages of children from low-income families to help ensure that all children meet challenging state academic standards. -U.S. Department of Education