Tuesday, January 26, 2021

What the leaked DOE memo on the "gifted" test reveals

Update 1.27.2021: Daily News reported last night that the Mayor has hurriedly appointed two new PEP members whose seats had long been vacant and is personally calling others of his appointees to push the extension of the Pearson contract through.


In several of the articles on the controversy over the renewal of the Pearson contract for the gifted test, which will be voted on tomorrow Wed. night by the Panel for Educational Policy,  including in the Daily News and Chalkbeat, a confidential draft DOE memo from July 2020 is mentioned that was leaked to PEP members.  

The memo is embedded above and is also posted here.  Several things stand out about this memo.  First of all, it clearly points out that doing any testing at during the pandemic is likely to intensify the inequities of this program, that are already too evident:

 "Testing during this time could exacerbate inequities for an admissions program that is widely known to have disparate outcomes by race. Data shows that the pandemic has impacted poor and ethnically diverse New York neighborhoods at higher rates than wealthier, predominately White ones. The difference in performance by racial and/or socioeconomic group could be increased by the impact of the pandemic, as students face loss of loved ones, loss of family income, food instability, etc."

Also: "Funding used for this program could be redistributed to programs providing more essential services to students."  

This is surely true. Yesterday at the PEP Contract committee meeting, the DOE admitted that based on previous years, administering the test cost about $5 million, including the Pearson contract.  They also implied that it might be even more expensive this year, because of the need for PPE and other COVID safety precautions.

Yet instead of mentioning the possibility that the entire program should be eliminated, as the Mayor's School Diversity Advisory Group recommended, this memo expanding it via a "universal screening program" for all students, starting in  2nd grade.  This screening process could include "a standardized, group-administered, machine-scored test" as well as several other assessments, and would surely be even more expensive to purchase and administer, and take hours of classroom  time.

Rather than reject the whole notion of screening young students for "giftedness", these DOE officials propose:

Though young gifted learners are heterogeneous and may not be easily defined or assessed, a pattern of gifted behaviors and/or advanced performance can be seen as early as preschool. Using scales, checklists, and student portfolios gives teachers opportunities to elicit behaviors characteristic of giftedness. Identification tools should vary by population (e.g., ELLs/MLLs, SWDs), and any teacher-facing component should include anti-bias trainingand training on identification and norm-referenced identification tools.

Really?  I would have hoped that for an agency that says they are devoted to the goal of improving equity, more options might be offered, including that the DOE should focus on providing all students programs and services to expand upon their inherent talents,  interests and gifts, rather than selected a subset of students for special treatment, based upon a complicated, expensive and likely unreliable system of checklists, scales, portfolios, and assessments.

The leaked memo also explains why the DOE is asking the PEP to renew the Pearson contract into next fall , as they intend "use the Pearson as the universal screener for some time" because it will take several years to select and purchase new assessments. [Click to enlarge]

The memo predicts how the proposed change in assessments and screening process might produce a "negative reaction" among supporters of the current program, but not about how the many advocates, parents and experts who oppose the entire notion of testing and screening young children might respond,  including  members of the PEP as well as the Mayor's own Diversity Advisory group.

Perhaps the lack of foresight and consideration of equity evident here results from the fact that though the memo is purportedly from Linda Chen, the Chief Academic Officer, it seems to have been written exclusively by staff who work in the DOE Office of Assessment, (though neither of the two staffers with the most comments, Winnie Huang and Michael Ryan, appear to have any particular training or technical expertise in this area.)  Perhaps it is natural that people in this office would simply want to administer tests and more tests, rather than think holistically about the needs of the whole child or the best use of scarce education funds.  As the expression goes, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. 

Of course, this wasn't necessarily the final draft of this memo, and perhaps others at DOE provided more careful consideration of these issues subsequently. DOE officials told Chalkbeat that it was “one of many iterations of potential proposals and options considered.” though they refused to make the final version available.

A side note: it is peculiar that in the unmarked approval checklist of DOE officials  appended to the end of the memo there appears the name of Hydra Mendoza, the former head of Community Empowerment, Partnerships, and Communications, who  left the DOE in Sept. 2019 - nearly a full year before the memo was drafted.

Again, I urge the PEP members to reject the extension of the Pearson contract at tomorrow night's meeting, because, as the memo points out, "if the extension is not approved, the DOE currently does not have an alternative assessment available to assess gifted intellectual ability for admissions for SY 21-22". You can make your voice heard by tomorrow night by registering here, starting at 5:30 PM.

No comments: