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.

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.