grading on a curve

Teachers give new Regents exam scoring system mixed reviews

The brand-new library at Evander Childs opened so teachers from other schools could grade Regents exams there.

Last year, the Evander Childs Campus got a new library, replete with rows of new computers and a mural depicting scholarly pursuits.

The library opened its doors for the first time last month — but not to students. Instead, it housed teachers from other high school campuses, who convened there to try out a new model for grading students’ final exams.

Regents exams, which students must pass to graduate from high school, have been scored by the teachers who administered them since the Regents exam program began in the nineteenth century. But mounting concerns about cheating — spurred on by the finding that students hit the minimum passing score at a disproportionately high rate — have prompted the city and state to make changes to how the exams are graded.

The state’s test security overhaul calls for schools to stop grading their own Regents exams by June 2013. The changes are meant to reduce opportunities and incentives for teachers to inflate their students’ scores, which under state law could factor into teachers’ evaluations in the future. The shift would bring Regents exam grading in line with how most states score high-stakes exams and with New York State’s requirements about elementary and middle schools’ exams.

Buoyed by its own concerns about cheating and softer forms of score inflation, the city has sped that timeline up. In January, a handful of schools tested out a system to ensure that teachers do not grade their own students’ exams.

Department of Education officials expanded that system, known as “distributed scoring,” to more than 160 schools this spring.  Most of the schools deployed teachers to centralized locations such as Evander Childs, and teachers from 17 schools tested a system for grading exams online. In total, about 107,000 exams were graded under distributed scoring last month.

Teachers who participated in the pilot gave it mixed reviews. Some said the system made them better graders because they considered only the answers, not the students, when assigning scores. But others said the system of musical graders was complicated, time-consuming, and likely to lead to unfairly deflated scores. And a small number of missing tests highlight the potential cost of logistical mishaps.

Department of Education officials solicited feedback from teachers who piloted the new system and said they would use that information to improve it before the next round of exams in 2013. Shael Polakow-Suransky, the department’s chief academic officer, said the pilot included a wide range of schools from across different districts and networks to elicit as full a range of feedback as possible.

“It was just trying to get a right mix so that we could actually see where the challenges will be and where we need to make adjustments for next year,” he said.

Concerns about fairness

For Richard Mangone, a retired social studies teacher recruited to grade U.S. History exams at the Prospect Heights Campus, few changes are needed. He said the scoring process at his site was the most efficient he had seen in 30 years of grading exams.

He also said he found it easier to grade fairly. One finding that prompted the city’s February audit was that teachers issued a disproportionate number of 65s — the lowest passing score — on Regents exams, suggesting that they might be bumping up the scores of students on the verge of passing. That’s less likely to happen now that teachers are not grading their own students’ tests, Mangone said.

“It’s not that you’re less objective, but it’s easier,” Mangone said about distributed scoring. “You’re just looking at the response.”

Some said have argued the bulge of 65’s reflects not padded scores but concern for students most at risk of failing. At a panel last August, high school social studies teacher (and GothamSchools Community section contributor) Stephen Lazar said that when teachers are more invested in their success, they are more attentive while grading, preventing careless scoring errors from costing a student the score he needs to graduate.

Monica Mazzocchi, who teaches at New Utrecht High School, which was a scoring center, said she prefers grading her own exams for the same reasons.

“Because it’s not their students, will they care as much as we care?” she said about other graders.

Other teachers said the lack of context could be problematic for other reasons. Peter Lapré, a social studies teacher at Park East High School, said he teaches his students extensively about the Venetian salt trade, even though the subject is not covered in standard course materials. This year, his students’ exams were graded online by teachers at other schools — some of whom might not be familiar with that topic.

“I’m concerned my students who chose to write about that were graded unfairly because the teacher didn’t know that information,” he said.

A teacher from Harry S. Truman High School said she worried that other graders wouldn’t be aware that students from her school take U.S. history in ninth grade rather than in their junior year, as students in most schools do, and would grade them according to the standards they would apply to high school juniors.

Fears of score deflation

The Truman teacher, who scored exams at DeWitt Clinton High School and asked not to be named because she feared repercussions, said she found that her concerns were warranted: Her school’s test scores in the subjects graded at the central location dropped significantly, even though they rose in subjects graded in the old model. And Lapré said his scores were stable from last year, even though his school had doubled the time devoted to global studies instruction in an effort to boost scores.

Both teachers said they thought the new system placed more pressure on teachers to grade harshly by exposing them to oversight from their colleagues and supervisors. The Truman teacher said that because no one at her site wanted to be seen as too lax, teachers debating between two scores usually tended to round down instead of up.

Plus, each grader was assigned a three-digit identification number and assigned to write them next to every response he or she scored.

“You’re well aware you’re being watched,” Lapré said.

Each exam was also marked with the student’s name and school. Arthur Goldstein, a social studies teacher at Francis Lewis High School, which did not participate in the pilot, said he was concerned that information could bias graders against students.

“I wonder if a bunch of papers go to a closing school [to be graded], if they won’t look at it and make my kids pay for it because we’re a good school,” he said.

Another teacher whose school did not participate in the pilot said he worried that bias could cut the other way, disadvantaging students whose names or schools suggested they were likely to be black or Hispanic because teachers would expect them to perform less well.

The city’s progress report system for evaluating schools judges high schools in large part by their Regents exam pass rates, and rates that fall from one year to the next would result in a lower grade. The system also weighs each school’s performance against that of other schools with similar students. When schools’ annual letter grades are announced this fall, some schools that used distributed scoring will have been compared to schools whose exams were scored under the old system.

Department officials said the distributed grading model actually shields students from unfairness. Before teachers even began grading tests at the centralized sites, they completed an exercise to make sure they shared an understanding about what makes an essay worth one score rather than another. First, each teacher graded the same essay, and then members of each grading discussed their rationales before comparing their assessments to the state’s guidelines.

The actual scoring happened in committees of four or six, with two teachers grading every essay. Discrepancies of more than one point between the teachers’ scores would trigger another reading by a third teacher, according to a department official who worked on the new system. That rarely happened, teachers who participated in the pilot said.

A large-scale logistical undertaking

Test scores weren’t the only things that moved as a result of the pilot: The physical tests also had to be transported around the city, posing a logistical challenge. In one extreme hiccup, 17 exams taken at Franklin D. Roosevelt High School in Brooklyn that were supposed to be taken to New Utrecht for grading were lost.

The Department of Education’s Office of Special Investigation is looking into what happened and whether distributed scoring played a role, according to Marge Feinberg, a department spokeswoman. She said the exams, which were taken by students in FDR’s evening school for students at risk of dropping out, are the only ones missing from June’s Regents period.

“We are working with school staff to find the exams,” Feinberg said.

Other logistical issues had graders concerned about distributed scoring’s efficiency. The teacher from Truman said she and her colleagues spent long stretches in DeWitt Clinton’s library, doing nothing while they waited for exams to be collected or distributed.

A Brooklyn teacher who commuted with 24 colleagues to score at New Utrecht said he said he found it inefficient to commute each day to a school other than his own. And he worried that the presence of 100 extra people in the building while New Utrecht’s students were taking final exams was disruptive.

But the teacher, who asked not to be named because he feared repercussions, said he saw a value in handing off his students’ exams for others to grade.

“What I would recommend personally is, give me Utrecht’s, I’ll give them my papers, and we can stay in our own buildings,” the teacher said.

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.