paradigm shift

Complaint targets elite HS admissions process, not just outcome

A chart in a civil rights complaint about the city's specialized high school admissions process shows the acceptance rates for students of different racial groups. (Click to enlarge.)

It seemed like a good strategy: To boost the tiny number of black and Hispanic students at the city’s most elite high schools, the city this year expanded access to programs meant to prepare eighth-graders for the schools’ admissions test.

But that approach is fundamentally broken, according to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which today filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education against the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test.

“More tutoring and more test prep is not the answer,” said Damon Hewitt, LDF’s director of education. “We need a real paradigm shift.”

The complaint calls for a new way of admitting students to the city’s eight specialized high schools. The schools have long screened students by ranking their performance on a one-time exam, a practice that was written into state law in 1972 for the three schools that were then open.

But that approach has yielded student bodies that do not reflect the city’s demographics — or even the demographics of the students who take the test. Last year, black and Hispanic students made up 45 percent of test-takers, but they represented only 14 percent of admitted students. At Stuyvesant High School, the most selective and least racially diverse, just 25 black and Hispanic students were offered seats.

Along with several community groups and legal groups, the Legal Defense Fund — which sprung from but is not actually part of the NAACP — is asking the federal Office of Civil Rights to push the city to advocate for changes to the admissions process. The office cannot mandate changes, but it can make the city’s federal school aid contingent on changes to the admissions process to make it more equitable. The office has 180 days to respond to the complaint.

The complaint suggests several alternatives to the current admissions process. First, it says the city should adopt a “multiple-measures” approach to assessing applicants, by looking at their grades, teacher recommendations, extracurricular activities, and life experiences. Although the process could seem onerous when 30,000 students take the high school exam each year, many other selective schools already assess students according to multiple measures, Hewitt said.

The city should also compel all of the specialized schools to participate in an expanded version of a program that has allowed black and Latino students who score just below each school’s cutoff to win admission by participating in a summer program, the complaint argues. Currently, the city’s most selective schools opt out of this program.

And the complaint argues that the city should also reserve some seats at each school for top students from across the city. In 2010, Stuyvesant High School’s ninth-grade included students from only 22 of the city’s 32 school districts, leaving large swaths of the city unrepresented. The final component hews closely to what John Garvey, a former CUNY administrator, proposed in a 2010 piece in the GothamSchools Community section.

“The woefully small percentages of black and Hispanic students at the city’s specialized high schools is not a new development, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do something to change it,” Garvey wrote at the time. “Here’s my suggestion: The Department of Education should adopt a proportional admissions plan for the exam schools that would offer admission to the highest-scoring students from each of the neighborhoods of the city.”

City officials say they couldn’t do anything about the admissions process even if they wanted to.

“State law requires that admission to specialized high schools be based solely on an exam, and we want all of our students to have opportunities to prepare for the test no matter their zip code,” said Erin Hughes, a Department of Education spokeswoman, in a statement.

Hewitt contested that argument. Only Stuyvesant, Bronx High School of Science, and Brooklyn Technical High School are named in the 1972 Hecht-Calendra Act. The other five specialized schools, which all opened under the Bloomberg administration, have been designated as specialized schools but do not have to remain that way, he said.

“The city could change its policy today,” he said. “There’s no reason why the city and the state and complainants and experts can’t come to the table and hammer out a workable, fair, just, nondiscriminatory policy. This could change as fast as there is political will.”

The change has some allies in Albany. Last year, Bronx Assemblyman Karim Camara was one of several legislators to initiate bills that would alter the Hecht-Calendra Act. Those bills didn’t make it into law last year, but Hewitt said he hoped lawmakers would try again this year when the legislative session begins in January.

Because the specialized schools contain only a tiny fraction of the seats across the city’s high schools, changing their admissions processes would affect very few students directly. But Hewitt said large numbers of students would benefit nonetheless.

“The message that this longstanding discriminatory policy sends is a very horrible one — it’s that even if you work harder than the next person and even if your grades are better than the next person, you still might not get the opportunity that that person gets,” he said.

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s complaint is below.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.