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A Victim of Her Own Success: How NYC's Ridiculous Testing Regime Pushed a High-Performing Teacher out of the Classroom

After helping her students reach the 98th percentile on state math tests one year, a teacher finds herself labeled an abject failure the next. Confused? You should be.

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The state tests, she believes, are poorly equipped to assess real mathematical knowledge, especially for high-performing students. “They’re so basic; they ask you to explain things that are obvious if you’re three years ahead,” she says. The Anderson students “understand it at a different level. They want to explain with equations, not words.” But the scoring of the free-response items on the tests emphasizes a formulaic response, with the scoring instructions often looking for a single keyword in a response to garner credit.“They’re not accepting answers that are mathematically correct,” Abbott notes, “and accepting answers that aren’t mathematically correct.” And the multiple-choice questions?  “Multiple-choice questions don’t test thinking,” she declares. Knowing how to answer them is “just an art.”

When she taught PSAT prep classes while on the faculty at the Bronx High School of Science, she realized that she was “teaching how to eliminate the wrong answer, not how to get to the right answer.” She didn’t mind doing that outside the classroom—but in her classroom, “mathematics is about deep understanding, and enjoying the process.”

How do her students perform on the content that she actually does teach? This year, the 64 eighth-graders at Anderson she teaches are divided into two groups, an honors section and a regular section. All but one of the students in the honors section took the Regents Integrated Algebra exam in January; the other student and most of the regular-section students will take the exam in June. All of the January test-takers passed with flying colors, and more than one-third achieved a perfect score of 100 on the exam.

“They did phenomenally,” Abbott said. “If they did so well, I don’t see how they can say I added no value whatsoever.”

In mid-February, the courts authorized the public release of the Teacher Data Reports, and they were published in print and online by major media outlets in New York City. “It was humiliating,” Abbott said. “To be published online, and stay there forever—it felt like an invasion of privacy.” She was terrified about the possible backlash from parents.

But of the parents of the 128 seventh- and eighth-graders she is teaching this year, only one wrote to her school principal—to express appreciation for a number of things she had done in her classroom. Anderson parents are a notorious bunch; they’re like helicopter parents on steroids. “I’d be more worried about the parents whose students haven’t had me—their preconceived notions that I must be a bad teacher,” Abbott said. “They have this idea that I’m the worst eighth-grade math teacher in the city.”

This summer, New York State will release the new iteration of the Teacher Data Reports, ranking English and math teachers in grades four through eight all across the state on their contributions to their students’ scores on the state tests. For Carolyn Abbott, the numbers will be little more than a curiosity. She has decided to leave the classroom, and is entering the Ph.D. program in mathematics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison this fall.

“I love to teach,” she says. And she loves mathematics. Ultimately, she decided, the mathematics was more important than the teaching, although she envisions teaching mathematics at the college level in the future. “It’s too hard to be a teacher in New York City,” she says. “Everything is stacked against you. You can’t just measure what teachers do and slap a number on it.”

This post originally appeared on, a blog of the Hechinger Report.


Aaron Pallas is Professor of Sociology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Professor Pallas has devoted the bulk of his career to the study of how schools sort students, especially the relationship between school organization and sorting processes and the linkages among schooling, learning and the human life course. His most recent projects are explicitly designed to inform policymakers and other stakeholders about conditions in New York City public schools.