into the light

Previously unreleased reports reveal familiar test security issues

City educators gave out answers to state test questions, inflated Regents exam scores, and coached students to change incorrect responses dozens of times in recent years, according to reports from a slew of investigations into test improprieties.

Responding to a Freedom of Information Law request by GothamSchools for information about complaints about test security, the Department of Education released 97 reports from investigations that concluded violations had taken place. The reports were completed between 2006 and 2012 by the Department of Education’s Office of Special Investigations and the independent Special Commissioner of Investigation.

Thirty-eight of the reports documented relatively minor violations of administrative protocol. In multiple cases, for example, investigators found that teachers had photocopied exam books when there were too few before getting official permission.

But 59 of the reports substantiated allegations about cheating, some of them serious.

One of the people found to have participated in cheating in a newly released report told GothamSchools today that an administrative trial ultimately concluded that no misconduct had taken place. The department did not immediately provide details about what happened in the cases after the investigations were over.

The number of cases are not a comprehensive accounting of the scale in which cheating occurs in schools. Investigators in some of the reports suggest that suspicious activities could go underreported. But the cases do provide a snapshot of what lengths teachers go to — and the ease in which they can attempt them — to inflate their students’ test scores

Some of the reports have been made public in the past. The report dump includes the report on Ruth Ralston, found to have changed students’ answers and lied about it at the High School of Contemporary Arts, and Joyce Plush-Saly, under whose watch teachers at P.S. 58 in Brooklyn gave students test answers in advance.

But the vast majority of the reports had not previously been released. SCI releases reports only about 5 percent of the time when it concludes that wrongdoing has taken place, and OSI rarely releases any reports at all.

The newly released reports include ones in which students recount the creative strategies their teachers used to alert them to incorrect answers and, in some cases, to the correct ones as well. They also include reports about schools — such as Hillcrest High School in 2007 and New Utrecht High School in 2010 — where large numbers of students were found to have received passing Regents exam scores when they actually failed.

A year ago, the Department of Education moved to crack down on Regents exam grade inflation, introducing a new grading system that went into place citywide this month in which teachers no longer grade tests taken at their schools. Officials attributed a significant decline in the number of just-passing scores on exams taken last June to a pilot of the “distributed grading” system. A state decision to eliminate “regrading” has further reduced opportunities to inflate students’ scores, although cheating is still possible.

Department officials emphasized that the number of substantiated allegations about cheating in the last several years has been very small and that the city’s test security requirements have been stricter than what the state has required.

“We have zero tolerance for cheating and all violators are disciplined,” Connie Pankratz, a spokeswoman, said in a statement. “The department goes above and beyond the state’s test security requirements with unannounced visits by test monitors and stricter protocols such as immediately removing completed test materials from schools. These measures work.”

Since last year, the state has been ramping up its test security practices and now is set to exceed the city’s regulations. In addition, a new test security office at the state level is preparing to launch investigations based not only on allegations but also on test score data that raise red flags. Virtually all of the reports released today stemmed from allegations first made by teachers or principals, but a handful suggested that city and state data analysts had played a role in identifying suspicious score patterns.

Just one substantiated report found evidence of cheating based on allegations made by teachers who found that their students were not prepared for the next grade. Students from multiple schools arrived at M.S. 218 in Brooklyn with high scores but low skills, and investigators ultimately concluded that teachers at the elementary schools had provided test answers to fifth-graders the previous year.

Last year, two Brooklyn schools were placed under investigation for the same reason, but teachers and administrators at other schools that experience large “swing rates” in new students’ test scores sometimes do not alert the Department of Education about their suspicions. Department officials have said they do not launch investigations based on data anomalies alone.

money matters

Report: Trump education budget would create a Race to the Top for school choice

PHOTO: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead
President Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos participate in a tour of Saint Andrews Catholic in Orlando, Florida.

The Trump administration appears to be going ahead with a $1 billion effort to push districts to allow school choice, according to a report in the Washington Post.

The newspaper obtained what appears to be an advance version of the administration’s education budget, set for release May 23. The budget documents reflect more than $10 billion in cuts, many of which were included in the budget proposal that came out in March, according to the Post’s report. They include cuts to after-school programs for poor students, teacher training, and more:

… a $15 million program that provides child care for low-income parents in college; a $27 million arts education program; two programs targeting Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students, totaling $65 million; two international education and foreign language programs, $72 million; a $12 million program for gifted students; and $12 million for Special Olympics education programs.

Other programs would not be eliminated entirely, but would be cut significantly. Those include grants to states for career and technical education, which would lose $168 million, down 15 percent compared to current funding; adult basic literacy instruction, which would lose $96 million (down 16 percent); and Promise Neighborhoods, an Obama-era initiative meant to build networks of support for children in needy communities, which would lose $13 million (down 18 percent).

The documents also shed some light on how the administration plans to encourage school choice. The March proposal said the administration would spend $1 billion to encourage districts to switch to “student-based budgeting,” or letting funds flow to students rather than schools.

The approach is considered essential for school choice to thrive. Yet the mechanics of the Trump administration making it happen are far from obvious, as we reported in March:

There’s a hitch in the budget proposal: Federal law spells out exactly how Title I funds must be distributed, through funding formulas that sends money to schools with many poor students.

“I do not see a legal way to spend a billion dollars on an incentive for weighted student funding through Title I,” said Nora Gordon, an associate professor of public policy at Georgetown University. “I think that would have to be a new competitive program.”

There are good reasons for the Trump administration not to rush into creating a program in which states compete for new federal funds, though. … Creating a new program would open the administration to criticism of overreach — which the Obama administration faced when it used the Race to the Top competition to get states to adopt its priorities.

It’s unclear from the Post’s report how the Trump administration is handling Gordon’s concerns. But the Post reports that the administration wants to use a competitive grant program — which it’s calling Furthering Options for Children to Unlock Success, or FOCUS — to redistribute $1 billion in Title I funds for poor students. That means the administration decided that an Obama-style incentive program is worth the potential risks.

The administration’s budget request would have to be fulfilled by Congress, so whether any of the cuts or new programs come to pass is anyone’s guess. Things are not proceeding normally in Washington, D.C., right now.

By the numbers

After reshaping itself to combat declining interest, Teach For America reports a rise in applications

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Memphis corps members of Teach For America participate in a leadership summit in last August.

Teach for America says its application numbers jumped by a significant number this year, reversing a three-year trend of declining interest in the program.

The organization’s CEO said in a blog post this week that nearly 49,000 people applied for the 2017 program, which places college graduates in low-income schools across the country after summer training — up from just 37,000 applicants last year.

“After three years of declining recruitment, our application numbers spiked this year, and we’re in a good position to meet our goals for corps size, maintaining the same high bar for admission that we always have,” Elisa Villanueva Beard wrote. The post was reported by Politico on Wednesday.

The news comes after significant shake-ups at the organization. One of TFA’s leaders left in late 2015, and the organization slashed its national staff by 15 percent last year. As applications fell over the last several years, it downsized in places like New York City and Memphis, decentralized its operations, and shifted its focus to attracting a more diverse corps with deeper ties to the locations where the program places new teachers. 

This year’s application numbers are still down from 2013, when 57,000 people applied for a position. But Villanueva Beard said the changes were working, and that “slightly more than half of 2017 applicants identify as a person of color.”