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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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For 10 months, Carolyn Abbott waited for the other shoe to drop. In April 2011, Abbott, who teaches mathematics to seventh- and eighth-graders at the Anderson School, a citywide gifted-and-talented school on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, received some startling news. Her score on the Teacher Data Report, the New York City Department of Education’s effort to isolate a teacher’s contribution to her students’ performance on New York State’s math and English Language Arts (ELA) tests in grades four through eight, said that 32 percent of seventh-grade math teachers and 0 percent of eighth-grade math teachers scored below her.

She was, according to this report, the worst eighth-grade math teacher in New York City, where she has taught since 2007.

“I was angry, upset, offended,” she said. Abbott sought out her principal, who reassured her that she was an excellent teacher and that the Teacher Data Reports bore no relation to her performance. But, the principal confided, she was worried; although she would enthusiastically recommend Abbott for tenure, the Teacher Data Report could count against her in the tenure process. With a new district superintendent reviewing the tenure recommendation, anything could happen.

Using a statistical technique called value-added modeling, the Teacher Data Reports compare how students are predicted to perform on the state ELA and math tests, based on their prior year’s performance, with their actual performance. Teachers whose students do better than predicted are said to have “added value”; those whose students do worse than predicted are “subtracting value.” By definition, about half of all teachers will add value, and the other half will not.

Carolyn Abbott was, in one respect, a victim of her own success. After a year in her classroom, her seventh-grade students scored at the 98th percentile of New York City students on the 2009 state test. As eighth-graders, they were predicted to score at the 97th percentile on the 2010 state test. However, their actual performance was at the 89th percentile of students across the city. That shortfall—the difference between the 97th percentile and the 89th percentile—placed Abbott near the very bottom of the 1,300 eighth-grade mathematics teachers in New York City.

How could this happen? Anderson is an unusual school, as the students are often several years ahead of their nominal grade level. The material covered on the state eighth-grade math exam is taught in the fifth or sixth grade at Anderson. “I don’t teach the curriculum they’re being tested on,” Abbott explained. “It feels like I’m being graded on somebody else’s work.”

The math that she teaches is more advanced, culminating in high-school level algebra and a different and more challenging test, New York State’s Regents exam in Integrated Algebra. To receive a high school diploma in the state of New York, students must demonstrate mastery of the New York State learning standards in mathematics by receiving a score of 65 or higher on the Regents exam. In 2010-11, nearly 300,000 students across the state of New York took the Integrated Algebra Regents exam; most of the 73 percent who passed the exam with a score of 65 or higher were tenth-graders.

Because student performance on the state ELA and math tests is used to calculate scores on the Teacher Data Reports, the tests are high-stakes for teachers; and because New York City uses a similar statistical strategy to rank schools, they are high-stakes for schools as well. But the tests are not high-stakes for the eighth-graders at Anderson.

By the time they take the eighth-grade tests in the spring of the year, they already know which high school they will be attending, and their scores on the test have no consequences. “The eighth-graders don’t care; they rush through the exam, and they don’t check their work,” Abbott said. “The test has no effect on them. I can’t make an argument that it counts for kids. The seventh-graders, they care a bit more.”