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Feature Stories

Public School Data: Numbers Beyond Belief

Recently, I was asked by the New York State Senate Standing Committee on Education to speak at a hearing in Manhattan regarding school reform, testing and the Common Core curriculum.

The bureaucrats on hand assured the lawmakers that everyone was overreacting to the problems with the state’s remuddling of public education. Several parents spoke passionately about how their kids were being used as guinea pigs for testing companies and a State Education Department that seems more enthralled with corporate interests than those of taxpayers.

I addressed something even more basic: that much of the data used to evaluate our educational system is, quite frankly, garbage. The school where I taught might be an extreme example, but I have no doubt that similar “data massaging” takes place everywhere “school reform” is underway. Including right here in our local districts.

The written testimony I submitted to the committee was based on an article I wrote for the New York Daily News. But when it came time to speak before the senators, I put this essay aside and addressed the issue in the most straightforward way I know, using words such as “corruption,” “crime” and “dishonesty.” To see this testimony, go to and search “John Owens testimony.”

Here’s the essay version:

Even as the conversation around schools focuses on testing and measurable results, much of the data being recorded in today’s public schools—and used to determine the success or failure of students, teachers and schools — is bogus, meaningless or simply made up.

I learned that after leaving my job as a publishing executive to go to graduate school and then became an English teacher at a public middle school in the South Bronx, where I saw how results that were presented as scientifically-based research were, in fact, easily gamed — and how teachers were turned into bookkeepers, and used the torrent of numbers to reach an already determined result.

There are, of course, tests. A steady stream of class, school, city and state tests — at least one a week — that eat up much of the school year. While I was overwhelmed by the number of English assessments I had to administer, students faced tests in every academic subject. After each test, I dutifully filled in the scores of my 125 students. In practice, though, every failing score was marked as 55. So 40 was 55. Even zero was 55. Failing, but still just 10 points away from passing. The city’s Department of Education leaves grading policies up to each school, so that the 55 minimum grade can be widespread without being official policy.

Test scores, though, made up just part of a student’s grade. Teachers also record daily grades for homework, classwork, class participation, tidiness of notebook and other academic categories. Attendance and tardiness were factors, as well as adherence to the school’s “core values,” of academic excellence, community citizenship, compassion, integrity, self-determination, reflective living and unity of being.

Unity of being?

In all, I was required to input more than 2,000 points of data each week. Every few weeks, I received an Excel file to record grades for progress reports or marking periods. The grading system had so many elements, variables and subjective criteria that anything could be “proven.”

Some kids had no positive data at all. No work, no quizzes, not much of anything, except maybe showing up.

“If a child attends class at least twice a week, you should be able to have an impact,” the assistant principal told teachers at a staff meeting. We knew better than to argue. The administrators would have immediately countered that if a student who ever came to class was failing, it was because the teacher was “ineffective.”

At report card time, more than a dozen of my students had averages in the single digits. They instantly climbed to 55.

But to be an “effective” teacher, I needed at least 80 percent of my students to pass. Anything less than that could lead the Department of Education to view the school as ineffective, a pressure that passed down from the department to principals to teachers.

Thus, any teacher failing more than 20 percent of a class was saddled with an action plan that doubled the teacher’s workload and forced him or her to spend time and resources on low-scoring students often unwilling to participate at all and with academic, emotional, physical and family problems well beyond what any single teacher could handle.

What to do?

“Don’t fail more than 20 percent of the class,” a longtime teacher told me. “Do the math.”

I did, and worked the numbers so that 81.82 percent of my students passed in the first marking period. It was distasteful, but some of the kids became Einsteins of reflective living and unity of being. And even the failures received 55s. With six marking periods, a kid with two or three 55s could pass for the year.

I’m sure “do-the-math” grading is common.

What else can we expect from a system that has replaced real scientifically based research with a blind reliance on data?

John Owens is editor in chief of Anton Community Newspapers, and author of Confessions of a Bad Teacher: The Shocking Truth From the Front Lines of American Public Education (Sourcebooks, 2013).