cheat sheet

Most monitored schools were flagged for cheating in advance

All but four of the three dozen schools that monitors visited in April as part of the city’s test security program had previously been the subject of cheating allegations.

Last spring, the Department of Education sent test monitors into 37 schools during a six-day period when students take standardized state tests, the results of which weigh heavily in how schools and teacher performances are measured.

Officials had previously billed the visits as a randomized tool to deter school staff from violating test security guidelines.

“Even schools that don’t actually get a visit … know that they could get a visit at any moment,” spokeswoman Connie Pankratz said of the program in August.

But it turns out that 33 of the 37 schools were not randomly selected at all, according to officials. Instead, the department was taking a hard look at the test administration practices of schools where it had already dispatched investigators to look into allegations of cheating.

Not all of the investigations are complete, but the ones that were substantiated turned up a mix of violations that could have given students a chance of performing better on the high-stakes tests. At one school, for instance, students used calculators on the exams even though they were prohibited.

The disclosure comes as the city grapples with ways to ensure that its test scores remain credible, even as the incentives to achieve higher scores multiply and funding for security measures remains scarce. In 2011, monitors visited 97 schools, but Chancellor Dennis Walcott said the department reduced the program this year because of cuts to the central budget.

Investigators found violations at six of the 33 investigated schools, officials said.

The department provided basic information about the investigations to GothamSchools, but did not release entire reports from the cases.

At Aspire Preparatory Middle School, a teacher handed out calculators to students for a state exam, even though the devices were banned. At Esperanza Preparatory Academy, a staff member instructed teachers to give students more time on tests than was allowed.

Esperanza was among the schools that saw an unusually large decrease in test score proficiency rates in 2012 after monitors visited, just one year after the school doubled those rates.

At four schools where allegations were substantiated, Pankratz said a single teacher violated test proctoring guidelines by “providing assistance to students during exam administration.”

The four schools were M.S. 324 (Manhattan), P.S. 46 (Bronx), P.S. 044 (Bronx), and P.S. 193 (Brooklyn).

Principals at the schools either declined to comment or did not respond to requests seeking comment.

At one of the schools, P.S. 44, the number of fourth grade students who passed their math test nearly tripled in 2011; that number dropped by more than 40 percent after monitors visited.

“We have taken appropriate disciplinary action against these teachers,” Pankratz said, but she did not provide additional details.

Not all of the violations may have been intentional. A source said that the cheating allegation at M.S. 324 emerged from a misunderstanding and that it was substantiated on a technicality.  The person said that a teacher was overheard telling students who had finished their exams to review their answer sheets before submitting it.

Teacher proctors aren’t allow to speak during the exam except when giving directions or answering questions about the directions.

At 19 of the 33 schools, the department could not substantiate allegations of cheating or other test improprieties. That includes Choir Academy of Harlem, where test scores and graduation rates increased during the two-year helm of a former principal who was denied tenure and removed from the school last January. The test scores plummeted after the principal left and test monitors visited.

Eight schools are still under investigation.


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.