Test monitoring offers look into city's efforts to preempt cheating

A test security practice that city officials devised to deter cheating before it happens is also being used to preempt schools already suspected of misconduct.

Each spring, as part of its test monitoring program, the Department of Education disperses a small team to schools on testing days to scrutinize and enforce security guidelines. Some schools are picked randomly, but others were flagged by the department because allegations were lodged by school staff and test score data showed “anomalous” results in recent years, officials said.

During this year’s six-day elementary and middle school testing period in April, education department employees paid 41 visits to 37 schools, according to records obtained by GothamSchools in a Freedom of Information Law request.

The city would not specify which schools were the subject of a targeted monitoring visit, as opposed to a random one. But an analysis of test score data for the schools that had monitors visit showed that many had large increases in 2011, a year when the citywide pass rate barely budged. When monitors visited the schools for the 2012 tests, some of them saw sharp drops on its scores — even while the citywide average increased.

Not all monitored schools saw declines this year and, in fact, some saw large gains. But of the schools that made significant gains on either English or math in 2011, more than half regressed to some degree in 2012. One school’s math proficiency rate dropped by more than 40 percentage points.

The previously undisclosed details about the monitoring program comes at a time when state and federal education officials are increasingly focused on devising policies to improve the integrity of tests in the wake of cheating scandals that have erupted in other cities. The number of schools listed in the monitoring program also provides a limited glimpse into the scope of cheating allegations that the city education department receives and is able to deal with.

(View which schools the city monitored during 2012 tests: http://www.scribd.com/doc/109627524/F8639-testingviolations-updated092812)

Despite calls for more comprehensive test security measures, the test monitoring program in New York City is shrinking. The number of schools canvassed in 2012 represents about 3 percent of schools that tested students this year, down from about 9 percent last year.

In almost all of the schools, monitors found no evidence of wrongdoing on the days of their visits. They follow a checklist that lists 20 state guidelines to make sure that schools in compliance. Was the test packet’s shrink wrap unmolested and kept in a locked room? Check. Are teachers making sure kids don’t receive inappropriate help? Check. Is the door cracked open and the windows left unobstructed?

But city officials say the program isn’t meant to catch principals or teachers in the act of misconduct. Instead, they say, the program is a successful strategy to stop it from happening in the first place.

“These unannounced visits are effective largely because of their deterrent effect – even schools that don’t actually get a visit they know that they could get a visit at any moment and must demonstrate that their test administration is consistent with regulations,” said department spokeswoman Connie Pankratz.

Officials wouldn’t say if they thought the monitoring presence had a direct effect on how schools performed, but many of the schools did see sharp drops.

At P.S. 270 Johann Dekalb, in Clinton Hill, the percentage of students who passed the English exam dropped 20 points this year, from 63 percent to 43 percent. The school’s math scores fared even worse. The number of students who passed the math dropped from 83 to 38, which yielded a proficiency rate that was 40 percentage points lower that the year before.

P.S. 270 was one of four schools that monitors visited twice in April — one day for a portion of the English exam and one day for a portion of the math exam. The three others were Esperanza Preparatory Academy, in Harlem, P.S. 091 The Albany Avenue School, in Crown Heights and Satellite West Middle School, in Fort Greene. Monitors did not visit charter schools in 2012.

Another monitored school, Choir Academy of Harlem, dropped 23 percentage points on math proficiency in 2012, just one year after it increased 16 percentage points in 2011. And at P.S. 375 Jackie Robinson School in Brooklyn, the passing rate in math increased 25 points in 2011, then dropped 11 points this year.

Often, the abnormal scoring peaks and valleys didn’t show up when looking at school wide proficiency rates, but did when comparing a grade level from one year to the next:

  • At the Cornerstone Academy for Social Action in the Bronx, the percentage of fifth graders rated proficient in math spiked from 31 percent in 2010 to 72 percent in 2011. When monitors visited in April, proficiency dropped back down to 26.9 percent.
  • Cornerstone’s fifth graders improved significantly on their English exams in 2011 as well; their proficiency increased 22 percentage points from 17 percent to 39 percent, then dropped back down to 25 in 2012.
  • The number of sixth graders at Esperanza Preparatory Academy who were proficient on their English tests more than doubled in 2011, from 13 to 27. The number then dropped in 2012 back down to 14 students.
  • The number of fourth grade students who passed their math test nearly tripled in 2011 at P.S. 044 David C. Farragut. This year, the number dropped by more than 40 percent.
  • The number of eight graders who passed math at P.S. 096 Joseph Lanzetta more than doubled in 2011, then dipped by 60 perent in 2012.

Calls and emails to the schools and principals were not returned this week. The week is a vacation for most school-based department of education employees.

Officials said they were first inspired to look at the schools by allegations of cheating or other test security violations. They did not respond to questions about whether the schools were under investigation, saying more time was needed to provide an answer. Records of the monitoring visits show that no violations were observed that required a referral for an investigation.

Despite the city’s public stance that the program works, the number of visits this year is down significantly from last year, when monitors made 97 visits to 99 schools.

Monitors once had a larger presence in schools, but it began dwindling years ago when the Bloomberg administration  restructured around networks. Before that, district offices had the responsibility of monitoring and deploying staff members to schools on test days.

Former Regional Superintendent Kathy Cashin said she blanketed her district of more than 100 schools with monitors on exam day. She scoffed at the size of the city’s systemwide monitoring program this year.

“It’s ridiculous,” Cashin said. “I mean, we had monitors in every single one of our schools.”

Test security makes for complicated politics at a time when districts increasingly lean on gains to tout their policies. But in the wake of cheating scandals that erupted in large cities around the country, Education Secretary Arne Duncan believed that test integrity was important enough of a reform issue to send a guidance memo to state superintendents last summer, urging them to adopt stricter measures.

“As I’m sure you know, even the hint of testing irregularities and misconduct in the test administration process could call into question school reform efforts and undermine the State accountability systems that you have painstakingly built over the past decade,” Duncan wrote to top state education chiefs.

In New York State, Commissioner John King adopted some of the guidelines that Duncan suggested and in September proposed them to the Board of Regents. This spring, as part of its test security overhaul, King highered a new test security czar, Tina Sciocchetti, to oversee cheating investigations and other school misconduct.

But some of those reforms have been nixed along the way, including a $2.1 million pilot erasure analysis program that would have been able to detect instances where bubble sheets were erased and filled in with right answers at a high rate (officials have said erasure analysis will go forward to some capacity). It was this analysis that was used to unearth the massive cheating ring in Atlanta two years ago.

Another proposal that was taken off the table, one considered to be an effective disincentive, is to disallow teachers from proctoring their own students’ exams. That was originally proposed by King and Deputy Commissioner Valerie Grey, who pulled it at the last minute. The test proctoring policy was one of the biggest changes that was made to test security in Philadelphia after some schools were investigated for cheating. This year, test scores in Philadelphia dropped by an average of seven points.

But one reform that has stayed on the table is test monitoring. The decrease in New York City’s program comes at a time when the state is hoping that districts will start ramping up their own programs.

“We’re looking to beef up the monitoring program,” said Tina Sciocchetti, who oversees test security at a statewide level.

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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.