Making the grade

More schools met threshold for closure on new progress reports

Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky briefed reporters on the new progress report cards this morning.

Almost twice as many elementary and middle schools are eligible for closure under the Department of Education’s longstanding rules this year, according to the schools’ 2011-2012 progress reports.

Since 2007, the city has given schools a letter grade each year based largely on calculations of their students’ test scores. Schools that receive an F, D, or three consecutive C’s or worse can be closed.

Last year, 120 schools fell into that category, and the department ultimately moved to close 10 of them. But this year, 217 schools received those grades, suggesting that this year’s closure toll could be greater than in the past.

The most dramatic change was a jump in schools receiving their third straight grade of C or below — from just five last year to 114 this year.

The striking jump is a late-onset effect of the state’s 2010 decision to raise the proficiency bar on its state tests. In 2009, just two schools had received F’s and 84 percent earned A’s. But that year, most schools saw their test scores fall, and nearly 70 percent of schools saw their progress report grades drop, too. The progress reports released today were the third since the change.

Caught in the metrics were some popular schools, such as Central Park East I and the Earth School in Manhattan, as well as 16 of Staten Island’s 52 elementary and middle schools.

It is possible that more schools than usual will start the first phase of the closure process, called “early engagement,” this year, Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky told reporters during a briefing about the progress reports today. But he said most schools with middling progress report scores would not need to worry.

“Early engagement is still going to be a significantly smaller subset of these schools,” he said. “There are triple C’s in this group that I’m not really worried about… that are nowhere near the point where we would consider them for closure.”

Progress report grades are a big factor in the city’s school closure decisions. But officials also take into account the schools’ enrollment data, safety data, and leadership quality, and other department accountability metrics.

The progress reports have drawn criticism for their complex and ever-changing algorithms and for sometimes awarding low scores to top schools and high scores to schools not considered desirable. But Polakow-Suransky said the reports have grown more sophisticated and accurate as the city has devised new ways to judge schools, such as by awarding them extra credit for helping high-needs students boost their test scores.

He touted this year’s adjustments, which include a new score for middle school students’ pass rates in core courses, and noted that most schools’ letter grades didn’t change much: 86 percent of schools received the same rating as last year or rose or fell by just one letter grade.

Tallying middle school students’ course passing rates allowed city officials to identify “a handful” of schools that had much higher pass rates in core subjects than on standardized tests.

“In the ones that we found, there really was grade inflation,” he said. “The standards were off in those schools and they needed a reality check.”

Department officials could not immediately provide a list of those schools, but Polakow-Suransky said the schools’ progress reports were adjusted so they were not unduly rewarded for having high course pass rates.

“This is the balancing act that is challenging around measuring school performance,” he said. “There’s always a risk when there’s data that doesn’t have the security of a standardized exam that this can happen.”

One metric that was not factored into the reports this year, but is set to be included next year, was a look at how each middle school’s recent graduates are faring in high school. The data, culled from the city’s “Where Are They Now?” reports that track student cohorts over several years, appeared on this year’s reports in a non-graded form.

Overall, of the 1,193 schools to receive grades for last year, 304 schools received an A, 421 received a B, 365 received a C, 80 received a D, and 23 received an F. Principals of A-rated schools receive bonuses of $5,000 to $25,000.

As has always been the case, Queens schools scored the highest, on average, compared to other boroughs. In a PowerPoint presentation delivered to reporters, department officials also called attention to the scores of charter schools and the 250 elementary and middle schools opened under the Bloomberg administration. Both beat the city average, the department noted.

Several charter school networks, including Democracy Prep and Success Academies, sent press releases touting their progress report scores. And in a statement, James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center, celebrated the 45 charter schools that scored A’s, calling them ”another sign that charters are making tremendous progress,” in a statement. Seven of the top 15 schools were charter schools.

“We hope they will share their lessons broadly to help make every public school great,” he said. The statement also touted the charter schools’ performance on one piece of the progress report: student growth. About a third of city charter schools earned A’s in that section, compared to 16 percent of schools citywide.

Teachers union officials did not comment on the progress reports this year, though in the past they have criticized the reports for their heavy emphasis on test scores and for not offering principals strategies to improve their schools. Instead, the union shared a table of data from the reports showing that several of the highest-performing charter schools had very high suspension and student attrition rates. The officials said those schools were at an advantage because many students who would post low test scores leave instead, the officials said.

Union officials also noted that several other high-scoring charter schools are new and do not yet have students in all grades.

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.

summer mix tape

Ten stories you might have missed over the summer (and should read now as a new school year begins)

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Stand for Children received funding to support parent education.

There is no such thing as time off from covering education. While school doors were shuttered, plenty happened this summer on the Colorado education beat. Here, we’ve compiled stories that we hope prove useful as you ease back into your fall routines.

We’ve got your immunization data right here … 

For the second year, Chalkbeat tracked down immunization data for more than 1,200 schools in Colorado’s largest school districts. Our database revealed that Boulder remains a hotspot for the anti-vaccination movement, students in districts with racial and income diversity are more likely to get their shots and nearly half of schools in the database did a better job this year tracking students’ immunization records. Read our news story about the findings, check out these six charts that dig into the numbers and search for school-level data here.

Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg reflects on his sabbatical (a break not everyone appreciated)

In June, Denver Public Schools’ longtime schools chief returned from a six-month unpaid sabbatical in South America with his family. “It made us appreciate the extraordinary resources we have here,” he said in an interview about his experience.

A milestone for Colorado charter schools on diversity, but not so much on integration

For the first time, Colorado’s charter schools educated a larger proportion of racial and ethnic minorities than district-run schools, a state report showed. We took a closer look and found that does not mean charter schools are more integrated.

Race, policing and education during a summer on edge

This summer sadly provided no shortage of violence and heartache over issues that sometimes feel like they’re tearing America apart at the seams. We sought to bring some local perspective (and wisdom) to the debate by talking to an ambitious Manual High School student who took up a bullhorn at Denver street protests and to Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn.

A middle school’s last-ditch effort to save itself 

An Adams County middle school running out of time to improve has placed its bet on more challenging, more personal teaching — and zero test preparation. Watch Chalkbeat later this week for a report on whether these efforts paid off in the form of improved state test scores. (Hopefully … the data are set to be made public Thursday).

Guess which Colorado school district had a high proportion of teachers designated to lose tenure …

Compared with other large Colorado school districts, Denver Public Schools had a higher proportion of teachers set to lose tenure under a sweeping educator effectiveness law passed six years ago. We surveyed big districts about one of the consequences of Senate Bill 191.

Too darn hot to teach and learn 

As part of its big bond request of voters this fall, Denver Public Schools wants to try to cool off some of its hottest schools. We took a look at where the mercury soars the highest and found that in 12 of the 18 hottest buildings — some of which house more than one school — the number of students who qualify for free or reduced price lunch exceeds the district average.

But the University Club has a lovely lunch menu (and squash courts, too)…  

What if the State Board of Education held a not-so-public meeting with the education commissioner at a private club downtown to prioritize goals, but didn’t get much of anything accomplished? That happened.

What we know — and don’t know — about Colorado remediation rates

Colorado’s college remediation rates inched upward after years of steady decline, a disheartening development. On top of that, we’re not getting the full picture, either, because of incomplete school-level numbers and non-existent district-level data.

Diet Coke: Coming soon to a high school vending machine near you? 

Despite opposition from advocacy groups, Colorado appears headed toward lifting a seven-year ban on diet soda in high schools. The rule change would clear the way for diet soda to be sold in high school vending machines and school stores, though districts could decide not to stock the drinks. We covered the issue before and after the State Board of Education’s initial vote.