backfill background

Charter school principal: Enrollment policies can skew scores

Two schools whose students have identical test scores would seem to perform differently if they have different enrollment practices, according to a chart produced by a city charter school leader.

It’s not only the teachers union that is arguing that charter schools’ enrollment practices can influence their apparent test performance.

Unlike district schools, charter schools can choose whether to replace students who leave. Charter schools that do not practice “backfill” can end up posting scores that make it look like their performance is better — or worse — than it really is, argues the founding principal of Harlem Link Charter School, Steven Evangelista.

In the Community section, Evangelista explains that when schools opt not to fill empty seats, “survivorship bias” skews test scores toward the results of students who remain enrolled.

The bias renders test scores meaningless, even dangerous, if the scores are not presented alongside context about a school’s enrollment practices, he writes:

Strong schools take the time required to plan, assess, and tweak new initiatives until they become standard operating procedures. The lack of information provided alongside scores obscures this type of growth, creating perverse incentives for schools to “push out” students who are low performers and to “quick fix” by whittling down large original cohorts to smaller groups of survivors, uncompromised by new admittees.

Evangelista says Harlem Link replaces students who depart, knowing that test scores could be adversely affected, in order to keep its budget stable and fulfill its mission of serving needy students. Last year, he writes, the school got lucky: The students who left were, on average, lower-performing than the students who left the previous year, so the appearance of large test school gains was easy to come by.

It’s a phenomenon that the teachers union has been particularly eager to put onto the agenda. After the city released elementary and middle school progress reports for last year on Monday, the union distributed a fact sheet noting high student attrition rates at several top-scoring charter schools. At South Bronx Classical Charter School, for example, between 20 and 40 percent of students that originally enrolled left before they were tested, and no new students replaced them, the union pointed out.

The fact sheet was meant to hammer home the same insinuation — that some charter schools’ strong results were the result of enrollment practices, not superior teaching and learning — that the union leveled at the charter sector’s self-assessment report this spring. ”The report fails to quantify just what the impact is on test scores when students leave charter schools and are not replaced,” said Dick Riley, a UFT spokesman, at the time.

In an even more extreme example of student attrition that the union did not highlight, Harlem Village Academy had 62 eighth-graders sit for state tests last year. But 104 students had been in the fifth-grade class in 2008, meaning that the test-takers represented just 60 percent of the original cohort. If the students who left were more often ones who struggled — which founder Deborah Kenny said was the case in her recent book — the aggregate scores would have been skewed upward.

A self-assessment report by the city’s charter sector released in April said school leaders “have mixed opinions” about backfilling. But it acknowledged that charter schools’ performance probably benefits from the flexibility not to backfill, especially if it is low performers who leave most often. Charter middle schools, which backfill seats least often, post the strongest performance.

Yet backfill doesn’t always cut in a single direction. Some charter schools fill spots that open up and still post consistently high scores, such as the schools in the Icahn network, which had two schools rank in the top 15 progress reports citywide. Other charter schools, including the UFT Charter School, do not fill always all seats that open up yet do not see their scores rise. South Bronx Charter School, which does not practice backfill, lost nearly 50 percent of the students in its first kindergarten class before their fifth-grade year, yet it posted only middling scores.

Indeed, Evangelista writes, a different array of students coming and going would have resulted in totally different scores at Harlem Link. That’s why he is not arguing for or against backfill as policy, but instead for more transparency about how who the students are can influence what the test scores say.

“What I want is for the public to have some understanding of the context behind test scores, so alleged miracles can be put in their proper place, and year-to-year statistical swings that have nothing to do with a school community’s actual performance can be put into their proper perspective,” he writes.

The methodology used in the city’s progress reports, released for last year on Monday, both mitigates against this effect and exacerbates it. A significant portion of the grades are based on the straight test scores, but an even larger portion looks at the improvement of individual students from year to year. Students who left before the most recent year aren’t factored into the progress component, so schools don’t get a boost if lower-performing students leave.

But attrition also means that a school’s progress score is based on improvements among a smaller number of students, often ones who are higher-performing. Plus, as classes shrink and “peer effects” — or the influence of having a higher proportion of high-performing students — kick in, gains might be easier to achieve.

defensor escolar

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.