Building Better Schools

Christel House Academy's grade falls from A to F

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Christel House Academy blamed last year's big drop in ISTEP scores on online testing glitches. This year, it's passing rates jumped back up.

Christel House Academy, the charter school that earned an A in 2012 only after former state Superintendent Tony Bennett’s lieutenants made changes to the grading formula, was given an F on Friday for 2013.

But officials from the school, which some accused of receiving special treatment last year, said it’s this year’s F grade that they can prove is unfair. Their appeal, which was denied, should have resulted in a grade change, school officials said.

In fact, Christel House’s CEO Carey Dahncke said the school’s grade called into question new state Superintendent Glenda Ritz’s assertion that testing errors last May had minimal effect on student scores or school grades. Dahncke said the school’s own analysis showed 90 percent of Christel House students who passed state tests last year but failed this year were also among those who were kicked offline during testing.

“That was the common element,” he said. “It is due to the testing disruptions.”

After months of problems, the Indiana State Board of Education Friday issued A to F grades for all schools more than seven weeks later than last year. The delay had become a point of contention between Ritz and the state board, escalating political tensions that had been building over questions of who guides education policy in Indiana.

But the protracted discussion and internal vetting of ISTEP test results and the new grades did not erase questions about whether the grades are valid.

In May, about 80,000 of the roughly 500,000 students who took ISTEP experienced problems taking the test online. In some cases, the test froze or response time lagged. Some students had to repeatedly log back in.

Over the summer the state hired an outside evaluator to verify the validity of the scores. His report found just 1,400 student tests were invalid, causing virtually no impact on school and district results, state officials said.

Still, it’s not just Christel House that is concerned that their grades were impacted by the testing problems, despite the education department’s assurances.

“That was a pretty widespread thought,” said Todd Bess, executive director of the Indiana Association of School Principals. “Whether that manifested itself into actual grade changes. That’s a good question.”

Ritz’s spokesman, Daniel Altman, said all appeals were carefully considered, including Christel House.

“They went through the exact same process as every other school,” he said.

But Christel House, which has earned A grades since 2006, saw 40 percent of its 679 test takers affected by glitches, school officials said. At several grade levels, it was those same kids who failed the test and contributed to a slide in the school’s passing rates.

Last year 81 percent of Christel House students passed both English and math on ISTEP, about 10 points above the state average. This year, the passing rate for the school dropped to 71 percent.

Some examples from Christel House’s internal review:

  • Last year 95 percent of third graders passed the state’s third grade reading test. In fourth grade this year, just 61 percent passed the English test. All of the 15 students who passed at third grade but failed in fourth grade had a testing disruption.
  • In seventh grade, the passing rate in math fell to 55 percent passing from 91 percent the prior year, when the students were in sixth grade. Again, all 19 students who went from passing to failing faced testing problems.
  • At eighth grade, all eight students who failed in 2013 but passed the prior year experienced ISTEP glitches.

“You’d have to be teaching kids the wrong thing to have that many kids go from passing to failing,” Dahncke said. “None of it adds up.”

So much of Christel House’s test data appeared to be affected by ISTEP problems that it appealed its F grade and asked instead to be given no grade for this year, Dahncke said.

“You can’t calculate a grade with all this bad data,” he said.

Christel House was among about 150 schools that appealed their grades. At Friday’s state board meeting, education department staff said no schools who appealed their grades based on concerns about ISTEP testing problems were approved for a grade change.

The school’s 2012 grade was at the center of a stormy debate over whether Bennett manipulated the A to F formula to help Christel House maintain its A.

News reports last summer revealed emails from the fall of 2012, obtained through public records request, in which Bennett’s staff fretted that Christel House might not receive an A. Research by Bennett’s team led to a proposal to tweak the grading formula in a way that raised grades for Christel House, serving students in grades K to 10, and 11 other schools with unusual grade configurations,. That brought charges from Bennett’s critics that the A was undeserved.

An outside review of Bennett’s formula changes from a pair of consultants hired by Republican legislative leaders later ruled called them “plausible” but declined to explore the motivations of Bennett and his lieutenants.

 

Reexamining APS

New report bemoans state of education in Aurora, but superintendent begs to differ

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia

More than a year after a coalition of nonprofit groups issued a report critical of Aurora Public Schools, a follow-up released Wednesday reveals not much has changed.

Only one of five Aurora middle school students can read and write at grade level, states the new report published by the nonprofit A-Plus Colorado.

Graduation rates have increased slightly but available data still show only one in four students who start ninth grade in the district go on to enroll in college. And of those who do, half of them are not prepared for college-level coursework.

“Change — drastic change — is imperative,” the report says.

Last year, the school district released its own counter-report to outline the district’s recent reforms. But this year, Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn was sharply critical of A-Plus Colorado, which published the report alone this year. The first report in 2015 was published by a group of 17 nonprofits with ties to either public education or Aurora or both.

“Organizations such as A+ demand that school districts see the world through their lens and follow their particular directives,” Munn said in a statement. “Their focus on ‘facts’ is a thinly-veiled effort to secure funding, promote their agenda and expand their brand on the backs of Aurora students.”

Van Schoales, executive director of A-Plus Colorado, said the claim was “bizarre.”

“It speaks volumes about the focus of the school district that they’re trying to deflect from their poor performance instead of taking responsibility,” Schoales said.

Hanni Raley, director of systems advocacy for ARC of Aurora, one of the organizations that was part of the coalition to issue the 2015 report, said that she still believes the district is making progress, but that reports like Wednesday’s help keep everyone accountable.

It’s all of our jobs to continue to make those improvements and to provide those recommendations,” Raley said. “I think it’s hard to be critiqued, but we know it’s important to keep the conversation going because it is about the kiddos.”

Munn’s statement went on to defend the school district’s work, saying “APS is aggressively implementing a reform strategy.” He also pointed to positive developments, including a rising high school graduation rate, decreasing dropout rates and a decrease in student discipline.

The graduation and dropout rates are included in the A-Plus report. But Schoales said the graduation rate is “hollow” if student achievement isn’t also improving.

Munn was hired in 2013 to help improve the district’s low scores on state performance ratings. According to a report the district published in 2015 to counter the first report, Aurora schools have been working on reforms since 2013 when district leaders created a new strategic plan. Some efforts like grouping a number of low performing schools into a zone that gave the principals increased autonomy was started more recently.

But Aurora Public Schools received lower scores on the state rating in 2016 than it did in 2013 or 2014. If the district doesn’t improve those state ratings after results from this school year, it would face state sanctions in 2018.

Wednesday’s report provides four recommendations for the district to improve. The recommendations mostly echo those from 2015. They include:

  • Increasing engagement from school officials and the community for turning around struggling schools
  • Developing a school rating system to make school performance data more accessible
  • Adding high-quality schools of all types including district-run schools, charter schools and innovation schools, with a clear process for approving and managing them. Charter schools are publicly funded but independently operated, and innovation schools are run by districts but with many of the freedoms of charters.
  • Re-writing the district’s strategic plan to link goals and values to measurable student achievement data

The report also highlighted some schools that, according to the organization’s analysis, are doing better than most schools in the district. Among the high schools named are Lotus School for Excellence, a charter school, William Smith High School, a small alternative high school program, and Rangeview High School, a traditional district-run school.

“It is clear that there are practices within APS that are driving better outcomes,” the report states. “This is another opportunity for the district to look for lessons and facilitate the sharing of best practices across the district.”

closing argument

As vote on Renewal school closures nears, the city has vowed to find students better schools. Can it keep that promise?

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Students from Monroe Academy for Visual Arts and Design protest the planned closure of their school at a recent public hearing.

On a recent Wednesday night, Superintendent Paul Rotondo listened to tear-filled pleas from students not to close their Bronx high school, Monroe Academy for Visual Arts and Design. He watched exasperated teachers criticize his recommendation to shutter the school. And he absorbed parent confusion over where their children would go school next year.

Rotondo made them a promise. “If this proposal passes, we will find you a better school,” he said, citing the high school’s low graduation rate (38 percent) and college readiness statistics. “I wouldn’t promise you something that’s not available.”

But what are the chances a student at Monroe, among the least successful high schools in the city, will wind up at a significantly “better” school if it closes?

It’s an important question for parents and students, as city officials are scheduled to vote this Wednesday on whether to shutter five more Renewal schools — low-performers that were offered extra academic resources and social services in the hopes of stoking a turnaround.

To assess the city’s promise of a better education for students at schools on the chopping block, Chalkbeat took a look at where students went after attending the only two Renewal high schools closed so far — Foundations Academy High School in Brooklyn and Foreign Language Academy of Global Studies in the Bronx. (A Renewal middle school also closed last year, but is not included in this analysis.)

The data generally back the city’s claim. Most of the schools that accepted the displaced students posted higher graduation rates, attendance, and test scores — and have more experienced teachers than the schools they left. That isn’t entirely surprising; the schools that closed were considered among the city’s worst. But the schools those students later attended were, in some cases, also struggling, often performing below city averages on those same measures.

These findings come with an important caveat: The city data show which schools students later attended, but does not include how many students went to them, making it impossible to say what proportion of students went to higher- or lower-performing schools. Still, the numbers reveal an overall picture of the schools in which those students enrolled.

First the good news: Of the roughly 70 schools that accepted students from Renewal high schools that closed last year, 65 percent had higher attendance rates. Ninety-six percent had students with higher average scores on eighth-grade state math and reading tests, 97 percent had higher graduation rates, and 75 percent had a higher share of experienced teachers.

Almost every school that took in students from Foundations Academy, for instance, posted a graduation rate above 50 percent, the average at Foundations. Every single student who left Foundations wound up at another school with an attendance rate over 78 percent, their former school’s average.

Data source: NYC DOE. Note: Two schools that accepted students from Foundations Academy High School were excluded from this analysis due to incomplete available data. (Graphic by Sarah Glen/Chalkbeat)

Still, on those same metrics, many schools that took on students from closed ones underperformed city averages. More than half of the new schools had lower attendance and higher rates of chronic absenteeism than average. Three-quarters posted lower rates of eighth-grade math and reading proficiency, and three-quarters had higher concentrations of poverty.

But there are bright spots, even compared with city averages. Sixty-eight percent of the schools that took students in posted graduation rates above the city’s 72.6 percent average.

Data source: NYC DOE. Note: Four schools that accepted students from Foreign Language Academy of Global Studies were excluded from this analysis due to incomplete available data. (Graphic by Sarah Glen/Chalkbeat)

Chalkbeat’s findings dovetail with a previous study on school closures in New York City that found shuttering low-performing schools was linked to better academic outcomes among the students who would have attended them later.

But for students who were enrolled at the high schools when they closed, the evidence suggests little impact, according to James Kemple, executive director of the Research Alliance for New York City Schools, and author of the school closure study.

“The only research available in New York City suggests that closing a high school is not likely to have much effect — positive or negative — on the students who were enrolled in the school at the time of the closure,” he said.

That may not comfort many parents, some of whom worry about disruptions to their children’s education, or are skeptical that they’ll find significantly better schools.

Cecilia Cadette, a parent at Monroe Academy, said she doubts that her son Dontee will wind up at a school that is better able to serve him, especially given his complicated medical needs. Under a new principal, Monroe has been making strides, she said, and Dontee has started to find academic success.

“Now I have to make time to do some research, go around to the [Department of Education] to say, ‘OK, my son’s school is shut down and I need a school where they’re going to provide a safe environment and [where] he’ll continue to thrive,” Cadette said. “I dread going through that process.”

Officials have promised individualized counseling for parents and students to help them enroll at higher-performing schools. Students at closing schools will still have to fill out applications for up to 12 schools, as in the traditional admissions process, an education official said. Students will not be able to apply to screened, specialized or audition-based high schools — roughly one third of all city high schools — but the official said plenty of seats at strong schools are available.

Finding students a spot at schools that are technically higher-performing but still face challenges may not satisfy all parents, advocates and elected officials.

At an education hearing Tuesday, City Councilwoman Inez Barron raised doubts about the city’s approach. “I think every parent should have a right to send their child to a top-performing school,” she said. “Not to another neighborhood school which is doing marginally better.”

The Panel for Educational Policy will vote on the closures on March 22 at the High School of Fashion Industries in Manhattan. The meeting is scheduled to start at 6 p.m.

Sarah Glen contributed data analysis and Christina Veiga contributed reporting.