First Person

Guessing My Way to Promotion

Last week I read a thought-provoking column by Diane Ravitch in the New York Post, in which she discusses the lowering of the bar on New York State math and ELA tests. She points out that to reach level 2, which is sufficient for promotion in New York City, a student needs a significantly lower percentage of points than he or she would have needed three years ago. Ravitch comments. “Ending social promotion, as the city rightly wants to do, is thus meaningless, because students can reach Level 2 by just guessing.”

Likewise, Meredith Kolodner writes in the Daily News, “The number of correct answers needed to score a Level 2 to get promoted has sunk so low that a student can guess on the multiple choice section and leave the rest of the test blank.”

This is disturbing. Surely it isn’t possible to get a 2—and thus a promotion to the next grade—by just guessing! Or is it?

To find out, I conducted a little experiment. First, some background facts:

(a)Each question on each of the tests is worth a certain number of points. The total number of points earned on a given test is the raw score.
(b) Each test has its own conversion table for converting the raw score to a scale score.
(c) The conversion from scale score to proficiency level is different for each grade and subject (though 650 is the minimum for a level 3 across the board).
(d) Thus, to find out if a student got a 2 on a test, you have to (1) correct the test, (2) calculate the raw score, (3) convert it to scale score, and then (4) convert the scale score to proficiency level.

The New York State Education Department website has all the tests, scoring keys, and tables you need.

Now follow along with me as I reproduce the experiment. My question was: is it possible to get a 2 by just guessing?

I first tried my experiment with the sixth grade ELA test. I “guessed” all the answers on the multiple-choice portion and left the written portions blank. Or, rather, I didn’t “guess,” but filled in the answers as follows: A, B, C, D, A, B, C, D, and so on, all the way through the 26 questions. I didn’t read one of them.

Now, of course I got a zero on the written portions, but let’s see if I got enough points on the multiple-choice questions alone. To find out, I first consulted the scoring key. The total number of possible raw points is 39: 26 for the multiple-choice questions, and 13 for the written portions I scored myself. Remember that I answered A, B, C, D, A, B, C, D, etc. According to the key, I earned 12 points.

Now I went to the raw to scale score conversion chart to calculate my scale score (if you are following along, be sure to click on the “Grade 6” tab at the bottom of the chart). According to this chart, my scale score was 622.

From here I consulted the “Definitions of Performance Levels for the 2009 Grades 3-8 English Language Arts Tests.” According to this table, a sixth grader needs a scale score of 598-649 in order to attain level 2. My score fell within that range, so I got a 2 without looking at a single test question or writing a single word.

I thought to myself: What if the sixth grade ELA test were a fluke? I tried the same experiment with the seventh grade math test.

Again, I only worried about the multiple-choice questions. Actually I didn’t worry about them at all; I simply answered them A, B, C, D, A, B, C, D, as I had done with the sixth-grade ELA test. There were thirty such questions.

I then went to the scoring key. I scored 11 raw points. According to the raw score to scale score conversion chart, this gave me a scale score of 616 (be sure to scroll down to the 7th grade chart). Is that enough for a 2? I consulted the “Definitions of Performance Levels for the 2009 Grades 3-8 Mathematics Tests.” A seventh grader needs a scale score of 611-649 on the math test to get a 2. So I got a 2 without solving a single math problem, or even looking at one.

While this approach does not result in a 2 for all the tests, it comes a bit too close for comfort, and another guessing system might work. A fifth grader told me that his father had told him, “Just mark ‘C’ for all of the answers, and you will pass.” On the fifth grade ELA test, this would indeed have resulted in a 2.

Yes, it is possible to guess your way to promotion. You may not even have to look at the questions or write a word on the written sections. It may not be called social promotion, but it amounts to the same thing: You do not need to know or understand much to move along.

Diana Senechal taught in NYC public schools for four years and has stepped back to write a book. She has a Ph.D. in Slavic Languages and Literatures from Yale; her education writing has appeared in Education Week, the Core Knowledge Blog, and Joanne Jacobs.

First Person

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.