More than a year before 7-year-old Oscar Mata was scheduled to take his first major standardized test, his parents received word from his school that he was failing. The Department of Education calls it a Promotion in Doubt letter—a well-intentioned, if blunt, method used to get families to take notice of gaps in a student’s skills.
The letter arrived in 2011, around the time of Oscar’s second-grade winter break. Before then, he had been happy at the Twenty-First Century Academy for Community Leadership in West Harlem. His parents, Andrea and Juan, had been drawn to the dual-language school, where English and Spanish learners took field trips together for innovative social-studies projects. They say that Oscar is great at math and loved science, music, and art. He loved reading, too, until he started to get tested on it.
“There was this transformation of the whole culture—and curriculum,” Andrea says. “I could see it mostly through the homework. It really looked like test prep. There were even bubble sheets.” Oscar had more than a year before the third-grade test, when students start taking the New York State English Language Arts (ELA) and math tests—but the thinking goes that the sooner they learn how to take big standardized tests and the sooner any skill shortfalls can be dealt with, the better they’ll do in the long run. Oscar, however, had a paradoxical reaction. “His interest in school,” says Andrea, “took this immediate plummet.”
She felt as if her son had been caught in a vortex: The school starts teaching Oscar differently, he loses whatever spark of curiosity inspired him to want to learn, and the school punishes him for it. He made it to third grade, but by then, test prep had come to dominate his classroom. Grand plans for science experiments and hands-on interactive projects, Andrea says, “would just kind of fizzle out and disappear because there wasn’t time to do them.”
One underlying problem, she learned, was that his school had received a grade of C from the DOE’s school-evaluation system, and student test scores accounted for 85 percent of that grade. The principal was under extreme pressure to raise the school’s performance level, because a low grade could persuade families to pull students out of that school. By spring, with the third-grade state tests imminent, Andrea started to think seriously about having Oscar opt out of the ELA entirely. The potential ramifications were a mystery to her, but in a way, she thought, the worst had already happened. Her son just didn’t like school anymore.
We’re well into the second decade of the accountability era of public education, during which federal programs like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top have prodded state school systems to raise standards. In New York City, Mayor Bloomberg has spent a dozen years bringing data analysis and standardization to what once was a decentralized system. Adding an extra layer of assessments to those mandated by No Child Left Behind, the system now tests kids year round instead of at the start and end of school years.
The new data introduced a degree of transparency and precision that never existed systemwide. For the first time, the DOE could make almost real-time comparisons among the skill levels of kids in different schools and neighborhoods and with different socioeconomic backgrounds. In theory, the tests ensure that kids are being taught to the same standard all over the city and keep low-performing students from falling through the cracks. The tests also offered Bloomberg a benchmark by which to justify the closing of several schools—he’s phased out or shuttered 164 in his nearly twelve years in office—with his letter-grade evaluation system.
But the shift to a data-centric system has led to an interesting new moment for everyone involved in the public schools. At the same time that the state and federal governments have embraced data as much as Bloomberg has, Bill de Blasio stands to inherit a system where a backlash has begun—and he, at least partly, was elected because he aligned himself with that backlash. “I would put the standardized-testing machine in reverse,” the mayor-to-be said during the campaign. “It is poisoning our system.”
From the third through eighth grade, two major state tests loom large every spring—the ELA and math. Formal preparation takes weeks, and informal preparation, as Oscar learned, begins as early as the second grade. For kids just trying to stay at grade level, New York City is unique in how it ties promotion to those state scores. Anything less than a “proficient” rating of two on a scale of one to four, and you’re held back. For children hoping to excel, the fourth-grade ELA and math tests have become a sort of SAT—a do-or-die score that many of the selective, application-only middle schools use to screen kids.