Last week, I issued the following challenge to a dozen third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders: create a paper airplane that flies farther than your peers’. We worked our way through the design process, brainstorming and sketching ideas, talking about the science of flight, crafting prototypes. We tested our planes, worked collaboratively to make revisions to the original designs, and shared our insights and conclusions. By the period’s end, each kid had a plane that flew significantly farther than her first.
Thanks to an in-house enrichment program at my school, these kids and I meet weekly to explore design challenges and engineering-oriented thinking that extends well beyond the curriculum. If Governor Cuomo’s budget—into which he quietly tucked several major changes to education—passes unrevised, schools across NYS will be forced to permanently forsake programs like this along with content not emphasized on the state exams, like social studies, creative writing, the arts, and social-emotional learning.
NYS families, the clock is ticking. On April 1, the NYS legislature will vote on Governor Cuomo’s budget, including his latest reforms to the state’s public-school classrooms. One of Cuomo’s proposals is to overhaul the way teachers are evaluated.
Under the current evaluation system, students’ progress on the state exams accounts for 20 percent of a teacher’s annual rating. Cuomo is proposing that we increase the weight of student test-score gains to 50 percent. (He’d like the other 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation to come from classroom observations: 35 percent based on a one-time visit from an outside evaluator and a mere 15 percent based on her own principal’s assessment of performance.)
If 50 percent of each teacher’s evaluation is based on the gains her students make on standardized tests, she’ll have no choice but to start intensive test prep in September and continue until the exams are over in May. Students will be grouped strictly by test-score performance and targeted with intervention that addresses them not as whole children but as test-taking beings. And, if you have a child in one of the lower grades where students don’t yet face standardized tests, he’ll have less dramatic play, less time to progress at a developmentally-appropriate pace because he’ll have to be on track to take high-stakes exams beginning in third grade.
Underpinning the logic of these proposed reforms is an increasing reliance on value-added models (VAM), a relatively new statistical model designed to supposedly determine how much a teacher should improve her students’ scores. The problem? Organizations like the American Educational Research Association and the American Statistical Association have specifically warned against using VAM to evaluate teachers. According to the ASA, a teacher accounts for only 1 to 14 percent of the variability in a student’s test score; moreover, when it comes to students’ test-score gains or losses, VAM can reveal a correlation between a teacher and her students’ scores, but not causation. And, the practice has a whopping margin of error of up to 53 points.