grading the grading

UFT protests Regents grading issues; UFT downplays concerns

UFT President Mulgrew and Council of Supervisors and Administrators, a principals union, outside Stuyvesant High School this morning.
UFT President Mulgrew and Council of Supervisors and Administrators, a principals union, outside Stuyvesant High School this morning.

A top Department of Education official said Friday that effects from delays caused by city’s new electronic grading system were “overblown” and estimated that only a small percentage of students would participate in graduation ceremonies without knowing their final grades.

“Every kid will have their diploma before the end of [the school year], no one’s being kept from walking,” Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky said at International High School at Lafayette in Brooklyn, shortly before taking stage to speak at the school’s graduation ceremony.

“I know that it’s stressful and I feel bad for the kids that it’s stressful,” he said, then added, “I do feel like it’s a little bit overblown.”

Polakow-Suransky’s comments came following days of complaints from teachers about the grading process of four of the most-taken Regents tests — Living Environment, Global Studies, U.S. History, and English. The exams are being scored electronically this year through a “distributed scoring system” to improve the efficiency and accuracy of the process used in previous years, which involved teachers grading their own students’ exams.

McGraw-Hill, the vendor administering the process, was tasked with collecting the exams at schools, transporting them to a scanning site in Connecticut, and then distributing answers one by one to teachers stationed at computers in city grading centers.

But the process was significantly delayed by scanning glitches and teachers said this week that often they’ve only been able to grade just a few dozen tests for an entire day. As a result, tens of thousands of Regents exams have not been graded and many students who are preparing for their graduation ceremonies still aren’t sure if they scored high enough to receive their diploma. The city is rushing to hire teachers to grade over the weekend in order to complete the scoring.

Polakow-Suransky downplayed the concerns, saying he expected the grading to be done by Monday and he estimated that less than 4 percent of students will have walked in graduation ceremonies without knowing what their final grades are.

He also criticized the United Federation of Teachers, which held a press conference early this morning at Stuyvesant High School, one of the city’s grading sites. UFT President Michael Mulgrew railed against the Department of Education for its handling of the process.

“Who was the genius who decided that it was a good idea to take all the tests that the children take and put them in trucks and send them to Connecticut to get scanned into systems so they can send them back here?” Mulgrew asked.

Mulgrew said he supported electronic scoring, but that the department made mistakes in its oversight of the contract with McGraw-Hill. When the education department awarded the $9.7 million contract to the publishing giant last year, officials said that part of the discounted deal included a promise from McGraw-Hill to develop a new web application that it didn’t previously have.

“Open up the books and be transparent and just say, listen we messed up, we shouldn’t have done this,” Mulgrew said.

In response, Polakow-Suransky said he believed the union was unnecessarily politicizing the issue.

“It’s ugly to be using this for political gain,” he added.

The shift to online distributed scoring is part of a roll out that began last year. It comes as the city prepares the need to administer and grade tests that include more open-answer questions to reflect Common Core standards. Officials have said that the system makes its easier to more accurately grade essays and other written responses.

Bruce Matthews, a teacher at Bard High School Early College who joined Mulgrew for the press conference, agreed that the concept behind the grading system was promising.

“If they can work out the kinks in this program, I think it’s great,” Matthews said. “But there’s been no input from people in the trenches who do this.”

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.”