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New progress reports shift some weight from scores to grades

For the first time since introducing school progress reports in 2007, the Department of Education has reduced the weight of state test scores in determining middle schools’ scores on their state test scores.

The change is slight, allocating just 5 percent of the calculation toward the grades schools hand out, but it reflects a significant shift within the Department of Education. After years of saying that the state’s current tests are not the ideal measure of students’ abilities, the department is — to a limited extent — putting its metrics where its mouth is.

Until now, 85 percent of elementary and middle schools’ scores have come from crunching the scores in different ways. But on the 2011-2012 progress reports, which are coming out today, that proportion has dropped slightly for middle schools, to 80 percent. The difference will be made up by schools’ course passage rates in the core subjects of English, math, science, and social studies.

The change, which the department promised a year ago, makes year-to-year progress report score comparisons hard to make yet is unlikely to dramatically alter schools’ scores on its own. Still, it signals that the city is projecting onto middle schools growing concerns about the mismatch between how city students perform on some high-stakes accountability metrics and how well prepared they are to take on more challenging work.

The mismatch has fueled a new aim for “college readiness” rather than simply graduation eligibility at the high school level, but it is just starting to have an influence in the primary grades. This year, for the first time, middle schools will get credit for the proportion of students who pass their core classes, considered an important precursor for high school success.

Recognizing that the accountability change introduces a new incentive for schools to hand out, or even mandate, potentially unearned passing grades, the department says it is on the lookout for schools where many students pass their classes but cannot pass the state’s math and reading tests.

“If we find cases where course passing rates are far out of alignment with both state exam performance and state exam progress we may redistribute points from the course metrics to the exam metrics for those schools,” reads a document that principals received last month to help them interpret their schools’ progress reports, which they received in advance of today’s public release.

Plus, the document warns, “The DOE is increasing oversight of schools’ grading polices. Schools may be asked to provide documentation of grading policies for review to justify student course performance results.”

The city has also awarded extra credit to middle schools where many students have passed a high-school level course or exam before leaving eighth-grade. One goal of the city’s 2007 middle school reforms, which quickly lost steam but got new attention after Chancellor Dennis Walcott announced a middle school overhaul last year, was to expand high school-level coursework in middle schools.

Next year, middle schools will also be scored on how their graduates perform in ninth grade, when they are confronted with higher expectations and different grading standards. For now, that data will appear on the progress report, offering a view into middle schools that might have promoted students who were not ready for high school, but won’t be figured into schools’ final scores.

In an education department that’s driven by data, what gets measured is a clear expression of values, and other changes to the progress report signal that the department is placing a new emphasis on the success of individual students rather than simply on schools as organizational units.

In one example, schools have long been eligible for “extra credit” based on how quickly they boost the test-scores of various groups of high-needs students. But in the past, schools have been ranked according to how much extra credit they earned, and only the top 40 percent received any progress report score boost. This year, every school with students who meet the standard for extra credit will earn some, and schools with more high-needs students will get more extra credit.

The city is also giving more weight to third-grade test scores, with a large portion of elementary schools’ scores going to an “early grade progress” metric that weights scores according to students’ demographics. And schools will also be able to earn extra credit for English language learners who advance quickly. Until now, extra credit has gone to schools that move low-performing students and black and Hispanic students forward, but there has not been a separate category for ELLs.

And in another non-graded change, this year’s progress reports will show how students performed in each grade, although the total score will still be based on the aggregated scores. “We have received feedback that reporting this kind of additional, concrete information about student achievement in the Progress Report would be useful to school staff and families,” the city’s guidance to principals reads.

None of the elementary and middle school changes alone is as as dramatic as the one that will hit high school progress reports when they come out later this month. Students’ college-readiness rate will count for 10 percent on this year’s high school reports, inducing potentially significant score declines for schools that have successfully gotten students to graduation but not prepared them with even the most basic college-level skills.

Concerns about the graduation-skills mismatch were one reason that the department last year introduced new policies to guard against soft grading on high school Regents exams and limit students’ ability to make up missed credits without retaking failed courses.

The city uses the progress reports as part of its determination of which schools to close and which principals to reward.

UPDATE: This article originally stated that elementary schools, which do not have core courses, were subject to the change in the way progress report scores are calculated.

No Strings Attached?

Gov. Cuomo is proposing free college tuition, but are his plan’s rules too strict?

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

As a freshman at City College last fall, Saad Ahmed stopped by his advisor’s office for what he thought was a routine meeting — until he found out he had lost all his state financial aid for the semester.

He thought it was a mistake, but it wasn’t.

Although he should have received about $2,000 per semester under the state’s Tuition Assistance Program, he unknowingly took a history class he didn’t need to graduate. Since TAP only covers courses applicable to a student’s “program of study,” he was suddenly one credit shy of the required course load.

“It was obviously frustrating because I lost the money, but it wasn’t my fault,” he said.

Ahmed is not alone. TAP has strict requirements about which courses, and how many courses, students must take in order to keep their aid. The “Excelsior Scholarship” — Governor Andrew Cuomo’s new plan to provide free college tuition at state schools to families making less than $125,000 a year — does too. The new scholarship, as it is currently configured, carries over some of TAP’s regulations, and some of its rules would be even more stringent.

The governor’s office, and many supporters, argue that cases like Ahmed’s are rare. Officials said they will try to address any problems with state financial aid, and that Excelsior’s additional regulations are intended to encourage on-time graduation.

But advocates say that argument misses a larger, structural issue with the state’s financial aid system: The more rules there are, the more chances there are for students to get tripped up. That ranges from seemingly innocuous mistakes like forgetting to count college credits obtained in high school, to situations in which students have to drop classes in order to support family members.

“How many 18-years-olds do you know that know exactly what they want to be when they grow up and don’t stumble and fall a little bit?” asked Susan Mead, director of financial aid at Dutchess Community College in Poughkeepsie. “Unless we have a parachute to catch them while they’re having difficulties, they’ll end up going out the exit door.”

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New York offers one of the most generous financial aid programs in the nation, but stringent rules have historically limited the pool of students who can benefit. Under the current TAP rules, students have to maintain 12 credits per semester and those credits must count toward a student’s program of study. Excelsior ups that requirement to an average of 15 credits per semester.

The idea of asking students to take only courses applicable to their study area is designed to discourage students from taking ones won’t help them get a degree. But the requirement is applied unevenly across colleges, said Victoria Hulit, a college success director at Let’s Get Ready, a program that helps low-income students finish college.

“In theory, it sounds great. We want our kids to get degrees. But the way that TAP regulates it, it gets a little bit tricky,” Hulit said. “We didn’t even realize [TAP] was a thing until kids started losing it.”

For instance, Hulit knows one student who decided he wanted to switch majors from forensic science to fire science. He took a semester of fire science courses, but hadn’t technically switched his major in time for those courses to count for TAP. He lost all of his aid for the semester, she said.

Gail Mellow, the president of LaGuardia Community College, where Cuomo announced his support for a free college tuition proposal, said that some of these problems can be solved by better tracking of credits on the part of students and schools. Sometimes, students say there are no courses available, but either they don’t want to wake up for an 8 a.m. class or the class conflicts with work. (Her students, for instance, sometimes work the night shift at LaGuardia Airport, she said.)

Schools are under pressure to make sure students meet each of the requirements. An auditor from New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s office confirmed that they frequently audit TAP rules at colleges and prevent schools from providing aid to students not considered full-time.

Hulit estimates she knows about 20 students who have lost TAP funding. Though that is only a small fraction of the students she’s worked with, she says more often counselors caught students right before they made a mistake. In many cases, she said, students simply lost funding because they did not meet TAP’s academic or credit accumulation requirements.

That’s where the Excelsior Scholarship is even more stringent than TAP. The scholarship requires students to average 15 credits per semester and finish in two academic years for an associate’s degree or four years for a bachelor’s.

“The way to make college a greater success — more success and completion — is more full-time faculty, more opportunity for a large number of class sections,” said Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, chair of the higher education committee. “That is the way to improve the end result. Not putting a gun to their head.”

There are exceptions, according to officials from the governor’s office. Students could take 12 credits one semester and make up classes the next, but they will still have to average 15 credits per semester in most cases. The state would also make exceptions for extreme circumstances, such as caring for a sick husband or serving in the military, officials from the governor’s office said.

“From a ‘stepping out’ provision permitting students to pause their education to allowing students to take variable credits if necessary, the program includes built-in flexibility and any suggestion otherwise is patently false,” said Cuomo spokeswoman Abbey Fashouer.

Still, an average student would not get more time, officials said. Their scholarship would not extend beyond two or four years, depending on the type of degree, even though the vast majority of students need extra time.

Only 22 percent of first-time, full-time students pursuing bachelor’s degrees at CUNY graduate in four years, but that number jumps to 54 percent after six years. The numbers are even more striking for students in two-year degree programs. Only three percent of students earn an associate’s degree in two years, but by the four-year mark, about 20 percent have.

This could be particularly difficult for students who have to take remedial classes, which do not count toward a student’s degree. Only about 50 percent of New York City high school graduates have met CUNY’s standards for college-readiness in math and English.

If the governor wants to help more students graduate, he should focus on eliminating some of these restrictions, instead of adding more, said Kevin Stump, the Northeast Regional Director for Young Invincibles, a group that encourages young adult activism on a range of issues, including healthcare and higher education.

“If the governor is serious, and if the state is serious — about college affordability and making college free,” Stump said, “it shouldn’t have all these ridiculous rules.”

Trouble with transcripts

Mayor: Detroit high school grads lost jobs because city schools couldn’t produce their transcripts

In his State of the City address, Mayor Mike Duggan said Detroit high school grads lost jobs because school bureaucracy made it hard to get high school transcripts.

By the time students graduate from the Detroit Public Schools, they have likely endured many years of frustrations, indignities and disappointments, but Mayor Mike Duggan revealed in his State of the City address Tuesday night that, for many Detroiters, the challenges didn’t end with graduation.

Until recently, graduates lost job opportunities when they struggled to get copies of their transcripts from the district.

Duggan, during  his roughly hourlong speech, said officials with the city’s Detroit At Work job training program discovered the transcript problem when they were talking with the heads of major hospitals in the city.

The hospital leaders said they were having difficulty filling entry-level positions despite Detroit’s high unemployment rate because Detroiters who applied couldn’t produce their high school transcripts.

City officials were skeptical, Duggan recalled. “So they went over to the Detroit Public Schools and do you know what they found? One million paper transcripts in a warehouse, in a school system run by an emergency manager who was dealing with everything he or she could at the schools.”

It had been taking two to three months for hospitals to get applicants’ transcripts, Duggan said, and “by the time they got the transcript, somebody else had the job.”

The Detroit At Work program contacted Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather who “got really mad,” Duggan said, and ordered the district to speed up the process.

Soon, one local business leader donated scanners so transcripts could be digitized and another business leader marshaled his employees to volunteer to physically scan the documents. The issue is being resolved, Duggan said, but he seemed alarmed that the problem existed in the first place.

“How many barriers do we have to erect in front of the folks in this town?” he asked.

The mayor’s speech largely focused on economic and community issues. Since he has very little authority or influence over schools, it’s no surprise that he didn’t spend much time on education.

But he did tout the Detroit Promise scholarship program, which guarantees two years of community college tuition to all Detroit grads as well as four-year tuition to qualifying grads who have good grades and test scores.

“If you apply yourself, college is going to be available to any resident of the city of Detroit who graduates from a Detroit high school,” Duggan said. “It’s one of the privileges of growing up in the city of Detroit.”

He also reiterated his recent vow to fight forced school closings by the state. State officials have threatened to close 25 schools in the city after years of poor test scores but Duggan said closures won’t improve education.

“Here’s what I know for sure,” he said. “We have 110,000 school children in this city, which means we need 110,000 seats in quality schools. Closing a school doesn’t add a single quality seat. All it does is bounce our children around from place to place.”

Duggan said he and the newly elected school board “know we need to improve these schools but before you close a school, you need to make sure there’s a better alternative and I’ve been encouraged by the conversations between the school board leadership and the governor’s office this week. I’m optimistic we’re gonna work things out but I want everybody in this community to know that I will be standing with [School Board] President Iris Taylor and the Detroit school board on this entire school closure issue.”