Sunday, October 24, 2021

Unanswered questions about DESSA, the DOE's social-emotional screener, and what parents should do

One small section of the DESSA screener

UPDATE: If you decide to opt your child out of this screener, and haven't yet heard from your child's principal on ho
w to do this,  email the principal and cc the parent coordinator telling them this, along with your name, your child's name, class and OSIS number; the deadline is Oct. 29.  The screenings starts next week. 

Along with the useless and time-consuming academic assessments that teachers have been told to administer this month, see here and here, teachers are also supposed to complete lengthy social-emotional assessments for each their students called DESSA, for Devereux Student Strengths Assessment, produced by a company called Aperture.  DOE purchased the use of this assessment for $18.7 million, according to Checkbook NYC, for three years according to the description on the PEP contract list, which voted to approve the contract in July. The description also says that "Aperture's program includes an intervention-tracking tool that offers specialized intervention recommendations, rather than a generic list," based upon a proprietary algorithm, one can only assume.

There are two different DOE webpages for parents about these assessments, here and here.  On this FAQ, it says that parents have the right to opt out.

DOE also sent the following message to principals, saying that parents can opt out, but unfortunately many parents have still not been alerted to this fact:

Copies of the lengthy DESSA  “screeners”  are available online.  Here is the lengthy form that teachers are supposed to fill out for students in Kindergarten through 8th grade, and here is the one for high school students.

I wonder both how most teachers would be able to answer these questions with any certainty after only a few weeks of classes; it will also be very time consuming, especially for NYC middle and high school teachers, who sometimes have up to 160 students each (though only the attendance teacher is supposed to fill them out in middle and high schools, which generally is the 2nd or 3rd period teacher.)  

Here is an excerpt message to his union members from UFT President Michael Mulgrew, sent today:

In our last discussions with the DOE on the topic, school officials told us that most students would be screened in January and the screener would consist of only 5-7 questions — a manageable number — so that we could gauge how our students were doing as part of our normal workday.

Now, the DOE wants us to administer a screening that contains 43 questions, a sixfold increase over the original plan. We don’t think such a lengthy screening is necessary to identify which students need extra support, and we can’t allow another strenuous task to be added to our plates during a time like this when we are all at our limit

Along with serious questions about how these screeners place excessive demands upon teachers to fill them out and how reliable their input will be, there are also real questions about the accuracy of the algorithm used to suggest interventions, and how private and secure the resulting data will be.

The company that owns DESSA is called Aperture, a for-profit LLC, headquartered in South Carolina with about 40 full-time employees.  If one reads the company’s privacy policy, it is not reassuring about the security of the personal student data that they collect and store.  Among other things, the Privacy Policy states that while financial payment information will be safely encrypted, it does not say the same thing about the student data (click on the box to enlarge):

According to the NY State student privacy law, Education Law §2-d,any online app or program utilized by NYC schools must be required to encrypt all personal student data in motion and in rest, so parents will have to get access to the contract to see if it complies with the law. 
We already know from this recent data breach that DOE is NOT safely storing student data.  More information about the very sensitive data Aperture collects is reported on a separate  privacy page for California users, in compliance with the California Consumer Privacy Act of 2018.  Among the data elements it contains:

Education records directly related to a student maintained by an educational institution or party acting on its behalf, such as grades, transcripts, class lists, student schedules, student identification codes, student financial information, or student disciplinary records.

I strongly urge parents to demand the DOE contract with Aperture from DOE’s chief privacy policy, Joe Baranello, to see what actual data is being collected, with what third parties it is being shared, and how it is being secured. You can email him at Access to all this information is also guaranteed under the law and is supposed to be posted on the DOE website here (but isn't).  

If you don’t get the contract, I strongly suggest that you opt out and file a complaint with the State's student privacy officer.  Contact us at if you want help.

The final important question is what will be done with this information if it is found through the screener that students are experiencing emotional distress.  On the PEP contract page, the DOE wrote "that the DESSA tool will help schools identify students ho might need additional social and emotional health supports, so that schools can ensure students have the access to the right services and are getting the help they need.

But see the following observations from a NYC teacher:

She followed by saying that the guidance counselors and social worker at her school are already overstretched:

I followed up by asking if one of the main problems with all these assessments is not so much that teachers don’t know which of their students have learning or mental health needs, it is that schools do not have the capacity to address them because of large classes and a lack of staffing.   

This is how she responded:




Unknown said...

There has been an active thread on the listserv Parents of NY Teens and Young Adults on whether or not to opt out of the DESSA. Many parents are writing in with their reasons for opting out. Leonie, do you know if any parent communication with their schools about their reasons for opting out are going to the DOE (likely not)? Is there a way to collect the comments from the listserv and register them with the DOE? FWIW, here is what I posted:

"I'm opting my kids out, for all the reasons mentioned, including these:

The several hours teachers are required to spend training, testing, and reviewing and norming would be *time* better spent in the classroom, with the kids, as well as in PD that trains teachers to integrate assessing and responding to students' mental health needs into the course of the school day.

The *money* spent to purchase the standardized (and potentially biased) screener and to pay teachers for additional time would be better spent on reducing class sizes and lightening advisors' caseloads, which would allow for teachers/advisors to build deeper relationships with each student--and family!--and do the above much more efficiently and effectively.

For teachers who are lucky/skilled enough to have been able to have built relationships with their kids (after 2 months of school), the DESSA and all it entails seems to be a waste of time."

Unknown said...

P.S. One poster to the listserv linked to this blog post, so it's being spread widely!

Unknown said...

Thank you for this piece! I am surprised by how little coverage this is getting. As a social worker that studies trauma and SELs, I am so disappointed by the amount of money the city has invested in Aperture's SEL instead of investing in trauma-informed, anti-racist modalities. SELs use such ambiguous language that leads many to assume that they are appropriate tools for addressing trauma, when in fact it is not in their stated goals or foundational to the approach. NYC schools kids are dealing with trauma and loss from systemic causes, and SELs approach the child as the locus of control, which places many at risk of being labeled with "SEL deficits" when in fact they may be having an appropriate reaction to a messed up world. I opted-out of this for my kids and have requested meetings with school staff at their schools in hopes of bringing awareness to some of the less talked about dangers of this type of approach.

Anonymous said...

While there may be better tools out there, SEL programming that helps students identify themselves as the locus of control is a GOOD thing - it is a mentally healthy way to approach the world. That is what gives individuals a sense of control over their own emotions, reactions, and decisions. If students (or anyone) attributes their emotional state to outside forces, they are at the 'whims' of their circumstances. This "I am a victim" mentality is in HUGE conflict with the ideals of resilience. On a different note, this tool does seem to require too much teacher time and seems susceptible to false negatives since it relies solely on the teacher perspective. I would like to see something that allows students to report their own perspective of strengths and challenges.