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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.

the end

A 60-year-old group that places volunteers in New York City schools is shutting down

PHOTO: August Young

Citing a lack of support from the city education department, a 60-year-old nonprofit that places volunteers in New York City schools is closing its doors next month.

Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15, its executive director, Jane Heaphy, announced in a letter to volunteers and parents last week.

In the message, she said the group had slashed its budget by more than a third, started charging “partnership fees” to participating schools, and explored merging with another nonprofit. But the city pitched in with less and less every year, with no guarantee of consistency, she said.

“This funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization,” Heaphy wrote. “We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure.”

The group — which began as part of the city school system but became its own nonprofit in the 1970s — says its volunteers work with more than 100,000 students in more than 300 schools every year, many of them faithfully. When then-84-year-old Carolyn Breidenbach became the group’s 2013 volunteer of the year, she had been helping at P.S. 198 on the Upper East Side daily for 12 years.

Heaphy’s full message to volunteers is below:

Dear [volunteer],

It is with a heavy heart that I write to inform you Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15 of this year. This organization has worked diligently over the last few years to sustain our work of engaging families as Learning Leaders, but the funding landscape has become too challenging to keep our programs going. While we have been able to increase our revenues from a generous community of funders, we have ultimately come to the conclusion that without a consistent and significant base of funding from the NYC Department of Education, we cannot leverage foundation grants, individual donors, or school fees sufficiently to cover program costs.

In the face of growing financial challenges, Learning Leaders reduced its costs as thoughtfully as possible — and in ways that did not affect our program quality. Rather, we sought to deepen and continually improve our service to schools and families while eliminating all but the most necessary costs. These efforts reduced our budget by more than 35 percent.

At the same time, we sought greater public support for our work with schools and families across the city. We are grateful to the foundations and individual donors that have believed in our work and provided financial support to keep it going. We were gratified when schools stepped up to support our efforts through partnership fees. While these fees only covered a portion of our costs, the willingness of principals to find these funds within their extremely tight school budgets was a testament to the value of our work.

Throughout an extended period of financial restructuring Learning Leaders advocated strongly with the Mayor’s Office and the DOE [Department of Education] for a return to historical levels of NYC DOE support for parent volunteer training and capacity building workshops. While we received some NYC DOE funding this year, it was less than what we needed and was not part of an ongoing budget initiative that would allow us to count on regular funding in the coming years. Several efforts to negotiate a merger with another nonprofit stalled due to the lack of firm financial commitment from the DOE. Over time, this funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization.

We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure. If you have questions or concerns about opportunities and support for family engagement and parent volunteer training, you can contact the NYC DOE’s Division of Family and Community Engagement at (212) 374-4118 or [email protected].

On behalf of the board of directors and all of us at Learning Leaders, I offer heartfelt thanks for your partnership. We are deeply grateful for your work to support public school students’ success. It is only with your dedication and commitment that we accomplished all that we did over the last 60 years. We take some solace in knowing that we’ve helped improve the chances of success for more than 100,000 students every year. The Learning Leaders board and staff have been honored to serve you and your school communities.
Sincerely,

Jane Heaphy
Executive Director

Rise & Shine

While you were waking up, the U.S. Senate took a big step toward confirming Betsy DeVos as education secretary

Betsy DeVos’s confirmation as education secretary is all but assured after an unusual and contentious early-morning vote by the U.S. Senate.

The Senate convened at 6:30 a.m. Friday to “invoke cloture” on DeVos’s embattled nomination, a move meant to end a debate that has grown unusually pitched both within the lawmaking body and in the wider public.

They voted 52-48 to advance her nomination, teeing up a final confirmation vote by the end of the day Monday.

Two Republican senators who said earlier this week that they would not vote to confirm DeVos joined their colleagues in voting to allow a final vote on Monday. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska cited DeVos’s lack of experience in public education and the knowledge gaps she displayed during her confirmation hearing last month when announcing their decisions and each said feedback from constituents had informed their decisions.

Americans across the country have been flooding their senators with phone calls, faxes, and in-person visits to share opposition to DeVos, a Michigan philanthropist who has been a leading advocate for school vouchers but who has never worked in public education.

They are likely to keep up the pressure over the weekend and through the final vote, which could be decided by a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence.

Two senators commented on the debate after the vote. Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who has been a leading cheerleader for DeVos, said he “couldn’t understand” criticism of programs that let families choose their schools.

But Democrat Patty Murray of Washington repeated the many critiques of DeVos that she has heard from constituents. She also said she was “extremely disappointed” in the confirmation process, including the early-morning debate-ending vote.

“Right from the start it was very clear that Republicans intended to jam this nomination through … Corners were cut, precedents were ignored, debate was cut off, and reasonable requests and questions were blocked,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”