First Person

Why I miss ARIS, the data system educators loved to hate

When Chancellor Carmen Fariña announced in November that she would end the city’s contract with Amplify for the maintenance of ARIS, the system that provided a one-stop shop for student data, we were assured that the city would develop an “ARIS replacement.” And while the city has told principals that the new system will be ready by September, as one of the relatively few teachers who used ARIS, I wish that replacement would make its appearance sooner.

Since its creation under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, critics of ARIS contended that it was overly expensive, poorly designed, and hard to use. Indeed, ARIS’s demise elicited “cheers from educators and parents who found the system never quite delivered on its promise.

The chancellor’s decision aligns with her efforts to steer the school system away from how it was run under Bloomberg. She has dismissed his focus on data to assess student needs, instead urging educators to create caring school environments that make it possible maintain strong relationships with parents and students.

But data should be viewed as central to that mission. As one of the 16 percent of teachers (and 3 percent of parents) who used ARIS, I can say that taking advantage of the data system supported my efforts to nurture my students. I found the jubilation over ARIS’s demise to be misplaced; the real problem, I think, was that so few educators and parents used what was an extremely valuable dashboard of data.

Was ARIS overpriced? I think so. Was it perfect? Absolutely not. But at least it was one place where I could immediately access an overview of a student’s attendance and administrative records, demographic information, and testing from state and school exams. Now, in order to gather similar information, I would have to harass my school secretary for attendance printouts, dig through various spreadsheets, and log into multiple other systems.

How did I use all of this data? It was integral to the work of my entire staff. We conduct a Student Work Analysis protocol on a regular basis within each grade-level team. Having access to test scores over time — coupled with other aggregated points of data — can provide powerful insight that we would not be able to glean just from student work and teacher observation.

Viewing aggregated student data allows for a more objective identification of patterns and trends. Why has one student steadily declined in math scores each year since third grade? Why did another student’s test score in reading rise drastically last year? Why was this student’s attendance 84 percent in fourth grade? How does this information align with or contradict what we observe in the classroom or in the student’s work?

We are then able to probe further through an examination of the student’s work, discussion of classroom observations, and surveys of the parent and student. As an example, a student’s test scores in a certain year might present an anomaly, such as a sudden drop. This provides a point of further exploration. Why did scores dip that year? Often, the answers to that question provide meaningful insight into the social and emotional needs of a student. When asked, a student or parent may speak about episodes of domestic violence in the home that year, or a divorce that was occurring. This trauma is not always volunteered automatically by a student or parent, for obvious reasons, but can become apparent through data gathered over time. And once possible causes are identified, the option for counseling to provide further social and emotional support may then be explored.

Without access to the aggregated data, educators would not be able to gain such important insight as swiftly.

Having student data readily accessible to educators and parents should be seen as a right, not as an option dependent solely on the political whims of the current administration. The more information that educators have, the more equipped we are in serving our students based on real need, rather than vague and possibly biased perceptions.

I know Chancellor Fariña wants teachers like me to address students’ academic and emotional needs and make school a safe, caring place for them. With ARIS’s disappearance, I have one fewer tool to do just that. I hope that promised replacement will indeed be on its way soon.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention. 

First Person

With roots in Cuba and Spain, Newark student came to America to ‘shine bright’

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Layla Gonzalez

This is my story of how we came to America and why.

I am from Mallorca, Spain. I am also from Cuba, because of my dad. My dad is from Cuba and my grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, and so on. That is what makes our family special — we are different.

We came to America when my sister and I were little girls. My sister was three and I was one.

The first reason why we came here to America was for a better life. My parents wanted to raise us in a better place. We also came for better jobs and better pay so we can keep this family together.

We also came here to have more opportunities — they do call this country the “Land Of Opportunities.” We came to make our dreams come true.

In addition, my family and I came to America for adventure. We came to discover new things, to be ourselves, and to be free.

Moreover, we also came here to learn new things like English. When we came here we didn’t know any English at all. It was really hard to learn a language that we didn’t know, but we learned.

Thank God that my sister and I learned quickly so we can go to school. I had a lot of fun learning and throughout the years we do learn something new each day. My sister and I got smarter and smarter and we made our family proud.

When my sister Amira and I first walked into Hawkins Street School I had the feeling that we were going to be well taught.

We have always been taught by the best even when we don’t realize. Like in the times when we think we are in trouble because our parents are mad. Well we are not in trouble, they are just trying to teach us something so that we don’t make the same mistake.

And that is why we are here to learn something new each day.

Sometimes I feel like I belong here and that I will be alright. Because this is the land where you can feel free to trust your first instinct and to be who you want to be and smile bright and look up and say, “Thank you.”

As you can see, this is why we came to America and why we can shine bright.

Layla Gonzalez is a fourth-grader at Hawkins Street School. This essay is adapted from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.