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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.

back to the future

On display at Automotive High School: A plan to revitalize technical education

PHOTO: Monica Disare
At vocational education panel at Automotive High School

Brooklyn’s Automotive High School has long offered students the chance to learn how to fix a car’s engine or replace its brakes. But a different type of “vocational ed” was on display Thursday, when a neuroscientist, theoretical physicist and artificial intelligence engineer were among those gathered to talk about the future of career and technical education.

They were invited by Kate Yourke, founder of a program called Make: STEAM, which attempts to inspire learning by connecting students with hands-on activities in the sciences and arts.

Yourke says she has seen the demographics of Williamsburg and Greenpoint change and, at the same time, watched Automotive High School transition from a well-respected community hub to one of the lowest-performing schools in the city.

Yourke wants to help the school, in part by offering students the kind of technical education that will energize them. While she hopes to work with several schools in the neighborhood, Automotive is at the top of her list.

“I’ve always had this school in my heart because it’s incredible,” she said. “It’s an incredible place.”

Nationally, there has been a push to redefine vocational education and include career paths like computer science that, unlike traditional vocational ed, require more than a high school degree. (These newer programs, however, are often to difficult start in New York City.)

Yourke hopes that high-quality, hands-on learning will give students a deeper understanding of the world around them, crucial preparation for any career path.

Even complicated topics like theoretical physics can be broken down for students, she added. “There’s no reason why you can’t access this information in a way that they’re going to make meaning out of it,” she said.

To that end, Yourke is running a “Festival of Curiosity” on Saturday at Automotive High School, where students can participate in activities like making hot air balloons or learning to sew.

“I think the school needs to serve the community that it’s in,” Yourke said. “It needs to be a resource for our children.”


How one Memphis charter school’s ACT scores jumped 2.6 points in one year

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
A graduating senior speaks during an Academic Signing Day ceremony for Freedom Preparatory Academy, a Memphis charter school whose entire first graduating class is headed to college. Banners were on display to represent the schools they'll attend.

When Roblin Webb launched Freedom Preparatory Academy in 2009 with a class of sixth-graders, she made a promise to their parents: College would be a reality for their children.

Now, as those students and others make up the Memphis charter network’s first graduating class, all 50 are heading to college.

Helping the students get there was a remarkable 2.6-point boost in the group’s average ACT composite score — from 16.7 to 19.3 in one year. That’s considered below college-ready, but the score is higher than average for Shelby County Schools and other high schools in the low-income neighborhood served by Freedom Prep.

“Our results tell us that although we still have work to do to ensure our students are highly competitive nationwide, our success locally and statewide lets us know that we are on the right track,” said Webb, a former lawyer and a graduate of Rhodes College. “We expect this success to continue next year and beyond!”

Chief Academic Officer Lars Nelson traces the boost to integration of ACT prep last fall into classes for English and math; three required practice tests throughout the year; and adding a third counselor for the school of 315 students.

The school’s small size helped, too. Most Memphis schools have more seniors and fewer counselors.

But Nelson also emphasizes the foundational learning that happened in the charter network’s elementary and middle schools, as well as an emphasis on teacher development and being an early adopter of the Common Core academic standards, which began in Tennessee in 2012.

“The way to truly prepare students is to see them through 12th grade,” Nelson said. “It’s not just one year of phenomenal teaching. It’s year after year, and then kids are ready for college.”

Like other Memphis schools, Freedom Prep has to manage a high student mobility rate. Freedom Prep had 96 students in its first sixth-grade class, 70 by 11th grade and 50 in their senior year. A spokeswoman said the network does not recruit students to its senior class.

The four schools in the Memphis-based network are considered some of the most successful in the city. Among charter schools overseen by Shelby County Schools, Freedom Prep is the top performer in English and Algebra I and the second highest in biology, according to the district’s latest charter report.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Elijah Tyler speaks at the school’s academic signing day.

But it’s Freedom Prep’s culture that attracted students like Elijah Tyler, a senior who has attended since sixth grade and earned a 27 on his ACT.

“You know for a fact if you need something, you can go to a teacher; not just academics but social issues,” said Elijah, who got a full scholarship to Rhodes College. “Everyone knows coming into Freedom Prep that the goal is to get into college and get that 4-year degree.”

The high school culture is grounded in a three-week teacher orientation every summer. During the school year, it’s not unusual for Principal Kristle Hodges-Johnson to pop in a classroom up to 10 times a week to give teachers quick pointers that “help them hone their craft at a greater rate,” Nelson said.

Vivek Ramakrishnan, a first-year high school teacher, said the overlap between ACT math and Bridge Math curriculum made integrating ACT prep a natural fit.

“Our leadership recognized how integral writing is to college academic success and prioritized writing in all content areas. Our history and (language arts) teams have pushed kids to writing college-length research papers,” he said. “…We also shifted towards making students interpret and justify their mathematical solutions in writing.”

Though Common Core isn’t perfectly aligned with the ACT, findings from the test company’s national survey helped inform its development in 2009. So, Freedom Prep leaders set out to adapt their classroom instruction early and provided time in the school day for students to prepare, especially since many don’t have access to the internet at home.

“This is a really hard shift for adults to make; it’s hard for students too,” Nelson said of Common Core, which is the basis for the state’s newly revised academic standards that will reach Tennessee classroom this fall.

The charter network focused on bite-size changes over time to help teachers teach differently and ask students more evidence-based questions. When it got hard, teachers reminded students that perseverance is key to the ultimate educational goal: graduating from college.

“We don’t try to insulate kids from that frustration and that’s an important lesson to have,” Nelson said. “We connect the transition with what they came here to do… (which) matters so much more than a standard.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include information about student mobility.