achievement gap · admissions · Blog · coronavirus

No Tests, No Grades, No Problem: What NYC Can Still Do

In March, the New York City Department of Education announced they would be cancelling state tests for the 2019-2020 academic year. Then, at the end of April, they revised the grading system so that those in elementary school will receive a final Meets Standards or Needs Improvement assessment, while those in middle school might also receive a Course in Progress status.

The reason given for the changes is equity. The reason given for every single change in NYC schools is always equity. It’s the reason why the United Federation of Teachers union is supporting their members in giving up teaching live lessons remotely.

The NY Post reports:

A union source said that many educators have thrown up their hands on live teaching because only some kids have the resources to participate while others still don’t.

“If you can’t connect with a bunch of students in your class then they are being excluded,” one Brooklyn middle school teacher told The Post. “Are you supposed to do it for some and not others?”

By that logic, under regular circumstances, if one child is out of school due to illness or because their bus broke down, all teaching must stop until every enrolled student is physically present.

By the same logic, because some students are unable to access remote learning well enough to maintain their grades, all students’ grades — including those earned from September through March, the majority of the academic year — must be ditched, rather than treating each situation and student as an individual, and accommodating their particular circumstances with equal compassion. 

If, as the UFT claims, “educators know their students and families the best and…. know what their students need, whether that is now, with distance learning, or in their traditional classrooms,” why can’t these same educators be trusted to reach their own conclusions and assign each student an appropriate grade? 

We’ll discuss the true reasons for this policy change in a subsequent post. (Spoiler: It is NOT about the kids.) In the meantime, we’ll focus on what this policy change will actually mean to the kids at the epicenter of it.

For the majority — nothing. Those students who were being tutored and prepped so that their “high performing” schools could take credit for their outstanding grades and test scores will continue getting prepped outside of school.

Those students who were being criminally underserved, will continue to be criminally underserved. You couldn’t always tell by looking at their grades. Multiple schools have students passing all their classes — while performing below grade level on state tests. They got promoted before. They’ll get promoted again.

And now with both grades and test scores wiped away, it will be much harder to see those pesky achievement gaps. Yay, another DOE victory for equity!

Those who were on track to graduate high school non-college ready — that’s about half of NYC seniors — will still graduate high school non-college ready. No pandemic can stop that. Yay, NYC!

The only ones who risk being tangibly affected are 4th graders who were planning to apply to screened middle schools using this year’s grades and test scores, and 7th graders who need to do the same to apply for high school. 

Mayor Bill De Blasio promised a plan for how they could still do so… soon.

While he mulls, I thought I’d offer some suggestions:

Look Back:

Instead of using 4th and 7th grades and test scores for admission, use 3rd and 6th. Easy. Done.

Look Forward:

There is no logical reason for why the NYC middle and high school application process has to begin so early in the previous academic year. Right now, students apply in the fall, with final choice rankings due around December 1st. They don’t get their results until late March.

Why not push the whole process into the new calendar year? Applications can be due in mid-April, and placement announced in early June (the way Gifted and Talented is now). That way, state tests can be administered just before winter break, and first semester grades can be used. Heck, is there a reason why applications can’t be due May 1st, with placement announced during the last week of school? That way, you can have up to three grading periods to work with.

Holistic Admissions:

Mayor De Blasio and School Chancellor Richard Carranza have been beating the holistic admissions drum for several years now. (Who cares if it’s actually been proven to benefit white, wealthy students, and hurt poor students of color the most?)

When it comes to the Specialized High School Admissions Test, they insist that a single score doesn’t capture a student’s entire potential. Not the way several years of state test scores could.

When test scores fail to live up to expectations, they insist grades are the true metric.

And when grades lag, well, students are more than just an arbitrary number, you know!

The DOE loves to remind that Harvard doesn’t choose their students based merely on grades and test scores. They take other factors into consideration.

OK, then, let’s go Harvard. (Forget the discrimination suit filed by Asian-American students, Harvard can do no wrong for the sake of this thought experiment.)

Without grades and test scores to go by for determining admission to screened middle and high schools, let’s implement other measures.

It’s easy with the Arts schools. They’ll simply continue with their established audition process. (Even though unscreening middle schools in Brooklyn’s District 15 means that option is off the table for them.) If school buildings aren’t fully open in the fall, students can send in videos of themselves performing, along with scans of their art portfolios, etc….

Schools like Bard High School Early College in Manhattan and Queens can continue offering their own qualifying test followed by an interview. Schools like Beacon HS (where the Mayor’s daughter went, even though screened schools are immoral) and Manhattan-Hunter, have essay prompts for students to complete — just like Harvard!

Other schools have online exercises, or require submitting previously graded work.

The Mayor is right. Harvard doesn’t just look at grades and test scores. It also asks for a personal statement and other supplementary material. So let’s have applicants for screened middle and high schools write personal statements, as well as submit portfolios featuring classwork they’re particularly proud of. It can be an English essay, a math test, a science lab, a history project, or a piece of art. (To avoid cheating, most schools request the work be signed by a teacher to confirm it was produced independently.)

Tests supposedly don’t tell you anything. Grades supposedly don’t tell you everything. Fine. Let’s see the actual work NYC students are doing in their classrooms.

Maybe we’ll be pleasantly surprised and admit the Mayor and Chancellor are right. Kids really are performing so much better than traditional metrics have led us to believe.

Or maybe we’ll be like the parents who, after observing a few days of remote learning, were forced to acknowledge that their children are actually much further behind than they’d been lulled into thinking.

The Chancellor urged school leaders, “Never waste a good crisis.”

I agree.

With grades and test scores out of the picture, let’s see what NYC kids are truly producing at school. And determine for ourselves what the actual crisis really is.

What do you think?

One thought on “No Tests, No Grades, No Problem: What NYC Can Still Do

  1. Alina—this is perhaps your best post yet. I could not agree more (as a public HS teacher myself). The motto of the DOE: Always hew to the lowest common denominator. But never forget that this DOE philosophy seems also to appeal to the snowplow parent/snowflake children too.

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