Katie Zahedi is principal of Linden Avenue Middle School in Red Hook, New York, which is located in upstate Dutchess County. She is active in the association of New York Principals who bravely oppose the State Education Department’s educator evaluation plan based mostly on test scores. Zahedi has been a principal and assistant principal at her school for twelve years. The views she expresses here are solely her own and not those of the district or her school. Suffice it to say that she is a woman of unusual integrity and courage, who is determined to speak truth to power. She wrote this piece for the blog in response to the release of the Common Core test results in New York, in which scores collapsed across the state.

Katie Zahedi writes:

Days before the release of embargoed New York Common Core test scores, laced within comments/double talk about “higher standards”, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan joined Commissioner John King in assuring New Yorkers that lower scores on the Math and English Assessments were expected.  The NYSED claims to have formulas to account for all sorts of nuanced variables so maybe they will produce one for the testing fiasco called the Bunkum Conversion Table!

What the public may not understand in the midst of today’s controversy is that when a test yields 80% (of a particular cohort) of students passing over a 5 year span, and scores suddenly drop to below a 35% passing rate, that the problem is probably unrelated to student performance. In fact, the last two years of tests produced by the NYSED have been rife with mistakes, missing tables needed for computation, and confusing and misleading questions.

The failure rates on the NYSED site are dissimilar to reported numbers in the 8/6/13 New York Times, leaving principals unsure how the data is being or will be manipulated for public reporting.  What is immediately clear is that the NYSED is out on a limb with its political machinations of student test data.

Historically, up to 15% of my students have been scheduled for Academic Intervention Services (AIS) for remedial help. Now, thanks to “higher standards”, those students’ needs are obfuscated by the new facts that nearly 70% of my students have been identified (by a state test) to be in need of remedial math.

I shouldn’t complain since I serve as principal of a high performing middle school. Last year our 8th graders (the same cohort described above) won the New York State Math League Award for 1st place in Dutchess, Ulster, Orange, Putnam and Rockland Counties, which is the reason that up to 70% of my students will require special pull-out classes designed to work on “their weaknesses”. After all, that is much better than many New York schools having 80-90 % failure rates.

Sitting around a table with my fellow administrators, our astonishment was somehow normalized in the run-off of a year saturated in convoluted, nonsensical, time-consuming and expensive directives from the NYSED. After disbelieving stares, I said “people, we have a responsibility to directly address the individuals responsible for this fiasco”.  Educators are a hearty bunch so after a brief pause we got back to work on compliance.

While not representing the views of my school district, I submit that we ought to take a look at the core problem.  We have a duty to speak truth to power (and his best friend: money) and hold the NYSED “accountable” for the failures that they are producing. The NYSED is need of internal reform. Straight up, my school is not in need of full scale revision and neither are most schools in New York. All schools should run in a constant state of improvement led by experienced principals and struggling schools need investment, support and a team relationship with a partner school that is successful. 

Mistakes like the fiasco of the NY State Assessments are to be expected when individuals who are scarcely qualified to apply for an assistant principal role in a district like mine are appointed to lead the state and federal education departments! Unsurprisingly, much time and public money will be wasted by well-meaning people who are appointed to important posts based on political association and/or possession of inordinate amounts of money.

The NYSED is a stately and dignified building that is waiting for benevolent and wise leadership. Doing his best, John King is working hard, holed away with privately hired “fellows” who are young, overpaid and fabulously confident considering their profound lack of experience in teaching and school administration.  Regardless of the plausibly good intentions of NYSED leadership, it is objectionable for New York State to allow the normal process of schools to be interrupted and for principals and teachers to be distracted from their important work with students to try out the half-baked ideas of politically appointed newbies. Whether on the state or federal levels, the appointment of individuals with insufficient experience in public education, should be discontinued.

If the name of the game is accountability for higher standards, let’s require that all appointees to state and federal leadership roles possess the education and experience required to serve with wisdom and dignity.