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Report cards count again

New York Teacher

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Michael Mulgrew Headshot 07-19
Michael Mulgrew, UFT President

For 10 years under the Bloomberg administration, New York City public school students’ promotion to the next grade came down to one thing: a standardized test score. Students who passed the state exam moved forward. Those who didn’t either stayed back or attended summer school.

No one cared about the students’ report cards, the real measure of their learning. Forget that those report cards reflect the opinions of professional educators whom we as a society trust to teach our children and evaluate their progress. It didn’t matter. Testing was everything.

But the system devised by the Bloomberg administration didn’t work. It didn’t work for students and it didn’t work for teachers, and now it’s gone.

Last week Mayor de Blasio and Chancellor Fariña announced that, moving forward, standardized test scores will no longer be the sole, or even primary, criterion when making decisions about whether students will advance to the next grade. Students’ writing samples, class projects and grades will all count, too.

Their decision marks a sea change in the way this city understands its students, its teachers and the role of testing in our schools.

Under the old promotion system, students’ achievements were boiled down to their test scores, their hard work throughout the year tossed aside, while teachers’ professional judgments about their students’ work and abilities were entirely ignored.

The de Blasio administration’s decision to use multiple measures in the evaluation of our students — including the teacher-assigned grades on their report cards — sends the opposite message, saying to students that they are far more than test scores and saying to teachers that their professional opinions are important and count.

Most important, however, the introduction of multiple measures is an acknowledgment that testing on its own is an unreliable indicator of students’ future academic success. Testing may be necessary, but it is not sufficient if our goal is to accurately assess where our students stand academically.

Otherwise, how do you account for the student who is brilliant in class but tests poorly? Or, conversely, the student who tests extremely well but isn’t motivated to complete work in the classroom?

The only answer is to adopt a more holistic approach to student assessment that takes into account student work as well as test scores, as the de Blasio administration has done.

If we’re no longer going to use test scores as the sole criterion to determine student promotion, then why should they remain the sole criterion to determine admission to the city’s specialized high schools or to its increasingly in-demand gifted and talented programs?

As any teacher in any of those schools or programs can tell you, the students with the highest scores on the admissions tests don’t always do the best once they get inside the classroom. In fact, many of those high-scoring students aren’t prepared to do advanced-level work and would have been better served in an open-enrollment school.

Conversely, sometimes the best student turns out to be the one who just barely made the cutoff. How many others are there who would be thriving in our specialized schools and gifted and talented programs if we had looked at more than just their test scores?

The same logic should apply to the Department of Education’s School Progress Reports, which base the letter grades that schools receive almost entirely on test scores.

If a student can’t be summed up in a test score, neither can the work of hundreds or thousands of students and staff. Every school, like every student, is different. Each faces unique challenges and has unique strengths, all of which must be taken into consideration when making an assessment.

Schools’ unique challenges and strengths weren’t considered in the past because, under Mayor Bloomberg, the progress reports were used for political rather than educational ends.

Now we have the chance to make a change and develop a more thoughtful system for evaluating our schools, one that accurately measures their progress so that we can learn from those that are succeeding and intervene to help those that are struggling.

That would also be great progress.