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College readiness hits progress reports but doesn't sway scores

The biggest change to this year’s high school progress reports, being released this morning, won’t affect schools’ scores.

In a nod to the growing recognition that a high school diploma does not guarantee college success, the Department of Education is adding three “college readiness” data points to the annual reports. They will calculate the percentages of students who passed college-level exams or courses; who would not require remedial courses at CUNY colleges; and who enroll in college the fall after they graduate. Starting next year, those figures will factor in to schools’ final grades, but this year the department is including them for informational purposes only.

Another change to the reports does reflect the growing focus on the quality of high school work — and is factored into the results. The credit accumulation metric, which looks at how many courses each student passed, has been narrowed to focus on classes completed in the core subjects of English, math, social studies, and science. In the past, a student was counted as having appropriately accumulated credits if he passed 10 classes, regardless of what they were. Now, at least six of the classes have to be in the core subjects.

One thing that won’t be on the reports: credit recovery numbers. Since last year, the department has been collecting data on the number of students who receive credit through non-traditional means after failing a class. The practice is sanctioned in policy but has been accused of being abused at some high schools, where students have been awarded credit after doing only minimal work.

Another change will help some schools relax. In the past, a high-performing high school could theoretically get a failing grade on its progress report. Now, schools whose graduation rate is in the top third citywide — about 80 percent in four years —  will not be able to score lower than a C. Scores of D or F, or three C’s in a row, put schools at risk of closure, according to the department’s guidelines.

The department has also ended the practice of splitting the data points of students who transfer schools across both schools’ progress reports. Now, the students who are on the register Oct. 31 are the ones whose grades, scores, and attendance will count on the year’s progress report. An advantage of this change, according to the department’s explanation of methodological changes, is that schools won’t be penalized for taking “over-the-counter” students late in the year.

Just as on the elementary and middle school progress reports that came out last month, the high school reports will for the first time award extra credit for moving students with disabilities to less-restrictive environments, a priority of a special education initiative that is mid-rollout, and posting gains among the low-scoring black and Latino male students who are the focus of the city’s Young Men’s Initiative. The city is also giving extra credit for gains made by students who were considered English language learners or who were in restrictive special education settings within the last five years, even if they no longer are.

All of the tweaks make it surprising that some elements of the reports — like the score ranges for each letter grade and the formula that assigns schools to a “peer group” — did not change at all.

And taken together, the changes mean that there can’t be a perfect comparison between this year’s scores and last year’s. Still, more than the elementary and middle school reports, which are based mainly on single math and reading test scores, the high school reports offer a peek into the experience that each school offers. And because they include a variety of data points, sharp year-to-year changes should be seen as grounds for further investigation, rather than the product of built-in variation. A school whose score jumps dramatically might really have improved substantially — or found a way to look like it has. This year, the city launched audits at 60 schools whose scores reflected suspicious patterns, so sharp drops could be more likely than ever to reflect the effects of new scrutiny.

money matters

Report: Trump education budget would create a Race to the Top for school choice

PHOTO: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead
President Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos participate in a tour of Saint Andrews Catholic in Orlando, Florida.

The Trump administration appears to be going ahead with a $1 billion effort to push districts to allow school choice, according to a report in the Washington Post.

The newspaper obtained what appears to be an advance version of the administration’s education budget, set for release May 23. The budget documents reflect more than $10 billion in cuts, many of which were included in the budget proposal that came out in March, according to the Post’s report. They include cuts to after-school programs for poor students, teacher training, and more:

… a $15 million program that provides child care for low-income parents in college; a $27 million arts education program; two programs targeting Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students, totaling $65 million; two international education and foreign language programs, $72 million; a $12 million program for gifted students; and $12 million for Special Olympics education programs.

Other programs would not be eliminated entirely, but would be cut significantly. Those include grants to states for career and technical education, which would lose $168 million, down 15 percent compared to current funding; adult basic literacy instruction, which would lose $96 million (down 16 percent); and Promise Neighborhoods, an Obama-era initiative meant to build networks of support for children in needy communities, which would lose $13 million (down 18 percent).

The documents also shed some light on how the administration plans to encourage school choice. The March proposal said the administration would spend $1 billion to encourage districts to switch to “student-based budgeting,” or letting funds flow to students rather than schools.

The approach is considered essential for school choice to thrive. Yet the mechanics of the Trump administration making it happen are far from obvious, as we reported in March:

There’s a hitch in the budget proposal: Federal law spells out exactly how Title I funds must be distributed, through funding formulas that sends money to schools with many poor students.

“I do not see a legal way to spend a billion dollars on an incentive for weighted student funding through Title I,” said Nora Gordon, an associate professor of public policy at Georgetown University. “I think that would have to be a new competitive program.”

There are good reasons for the Trump administration not to rush into creating a program in which states compete for new federal funds, though. … Creating a new program would open the administration to criticism of overreach — which the Obama administration faced when it used the Race to the Top competition to get states to adopt its priorities.

It’s unclear from the Post’s report how the Trump administration is handling Gordon’s concerns. But the Post reports that the administration wants to use a competitive grant program — which it’s calling Furthering Options for Children to Unlock Success, or FOCUS — to redistribute $1 billion in Title I funds for poor students. That means the administration decided that an Obama-style incentive program is worth the potential risks.

The administration’s budget request would have to be fulfilled by Congress, so whether any of the cuts or new programs come to pass is anyone’s guess. Things are not proceeding normally in Washington, D.C., right now.

By the numbers

After reshaping itself to combat declining interest, Teach For America reports a rise in applications

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Memphis corps members of Teach For America participate in a leadership summit in last August.

Teach for America says its application numbers jumped by a significant number this year, reversing a three-year trend of declining interest in the program.

The organization’s CEO said in a blog post this week that nearly 49,000 people applied for the 2017 program, which places college graduates in low-income schools across the country after summer training — up from just 37,000 applicants last year.

“After three years of declining recruitment, our application numbers spiked this year, and we’re in a good position to meet our goals for corps size, maintaining the same high bar for admission that we always have,” Elisa Villanueva Beard wrote. The post was reported by Politico on Wednesday.

The news comes after significant shake-ups at the organization. One of TFA’s leaders left in late 2015, and the organization slashed its national staff by 15 percent last year. As applications fell over the last several years, it downsized in places like New York City and Memphis, decentralized its operations, and shifted its focus to attracting a more diverse corps with deeper ties to the locations where the program places new teachers. 

This year’s application numbers are still down from 2013, when 57,000 people applied for a position. But Villanueva Beard said the changes were working, and that “slightly more than half of 2017 applicants identify as a person of color.”