Distressed by state tests that they say did not reflect the way they want students to learn, several city principals are pledging not to use the scores to help them pick their students.
Selective middle schools consider students’ fourth-grade reading and math scores, and selective high schools look at students’ seventh-grade scores.
But after the first round of state tests tied to new standards known as the Common Core, about a dozen principals have announced — in an open letter to parents, students, educators, and others with an interest in education — that they are abandoning the use of test scores in admission, at least for now.
“We welcome rigor, high standards and accountability, but demand that these three crucial words and concepts not be thrown around loosely; and, even more importantly, we demand that they be implemented in a proper, respectful and effective way,” write the principals, who come from a range of selective schools in three boroughs. “Therefore, we cannot grant these recent tests the value others claim they have until [our] concerns are addressed.”
The principals say they want the state’s tests to be shorter, open to public scrutiny, and more aligned to the Common Core, which emphasizes critical thinking and problem solving over recall and the completion of rote processes.
Mark Federman, principal of East Side Community School, said he helped draft the letter after being “shocked and appalled and just really saddened” that this year’s state tests did not match up to what he expected of the Common Core.
“The power that we have as principals and as schools is we decide how important [test scores] are,” he said. “It would be hypocritical for us to use them in admissions.”
The principals are also registering their criticism in a letter that Federman said would be sent soon to State Education Commissioner John King. Journalist Andrea Gabor first reported about both letters on her blog.
Like most of the principals who signed the letters, Rex Bobbish, principal of the Cinema School, a selective Bronx high school, has never made test scores the exclusive or even prime factor when selecting applicants. But he told GothamSchools that he always considers them, and in the past, he has assumed that very low scores meant that students would not be prepared for high school. Now, he said, he won’t make the same assumption.
“I will weigh students’ grades in core courses much more heavily than the state exams going forward,” he said. “That’s the pledge I made when I signed that letter.”
At schools where test scores have factored more heavily into admissions decisions, making the same pledge is less straightforward, Federman said. Still, he said, principals there could facilitate an important discussion about the role of test scores.
“If there’s a school and parents that are boycotting the test, and yet the school is using tests to let kids in, I think that’s a good conversation for that community to have,” he said.
Among the principals who have signed on to the pledge is Ramon Gonzalez of M.S. 223 in the South Bronx. Days after the state tests finished last month, Gonzalez told a crowd of policy makers — including AFT President Randi Weingarten, who has called for a one-year moratorium on stakes for Common Core exams — that the tests had distressed his teachers and students.
“They didn’t know it would be a test of endurance,” Gonzalez said about his students. “They thought it would be a test about what they knew.”
Bobbish said changing their schools’ admissions criteria represents a small step that principals can take against state tests’ increasing stakes, an issue that several mayoral candidates have pledged to address.
“There’s not really much we can do about it,” said Bobbish, who said he supports the Common Core standards but grew concerned after colleagues told him that the tests did not appear to be fully aligned to the standards. “We can’t control the whole world, but we can send a message by saying we really value a student’s long-term effort and what they do in teachers’ classrooms more than what their tests show.”
This story has been updated with comments from Mark Federman and to reflect the fact that the letter to John King has not yet been sent.