makeup work

Use of "credit recovery" in city schools varied widely, data show

City schools ranged widely in how often their students took a controversial fast track to making up failed classes, according to new Department of Education data.

“Credit recovery” offers students the chance to make up failed classes without having to repeat the entire course, often through online assignments or packets of worksheets. The option was designed for rare occasions, but critics of the Bloomberg administration say pressure to boost graduation rates caused the practice to be abused.

Education officials countered allegations of abuse by citing the fact that credit recovery accounted for just 1.7 percent of all credits earned citywide in the 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 school years.

But that figure masked the fact that many schools did not have any students earn credits through credit recovery, while dozens relied heavily on the practice, according to the new data, made available for the first time in response to Freedom of Information Law requests.

A GothamSchools analysis of the data found that at schools that used credit recovery at all, one in every 40 credits earned, or about 2.6 percent, came through the practice.

About a quarter of city high schools — 129 — did not award any credits through credit recovery in 2012, officials said.

That same year, 39 schools awarded more than 5 percent of their credits through recovery. At nine schools — mostly transfer schools and schools that were closing — that figure was above 10 percent, according to the city data.

At Mott Hall V, a Bronx school that expanded to high school grades in 2010, nearly half of the credits earned by ninth-graders in the 2010-2011 school year came through credit recovery, a fact that its principal attributed to staffing issues and students who took advantage of the program.

“They had no problem failing courses when they should have been doing what they had to do,” Peter Oroszlany said of some students who enrolled in credit recovery.

Oroszlany, who founded Mott Hall V as a middle school in 2005, said his budget was stretched so thin when the school expanded that he couldn’t hire enough teachers to handle all the incoming freshmen. Some students, he said, earned credits through a credit recovery course before ever taking and failing a traditional class, in violation of longstanding regulations.

“I did not have enough funding,” added Oroszlany.

Oroszlany said he was able to add more teachers the following year, and the school’s credit recovery rate dropped to 26 percent — still the third highest in the city.

Though Mott Hall V was an outlier, dozens of high schools still had credit recovery rates above 5 percent, about triple the city’s average, the data show. Some of the schools are transfer schools, or schools the city was phasing out due to poor performance. Those schools, which tend to serve very high-need students, have less ability to require students to retake entire classes.

At Franklin K. Lane High School, for instance, which shuttered in 2012, more than one in four credits that year was earned through credit recovery. At Bronx Regional High School, a transfer school that serves overage students who have failed at other schools, 27 percent of credits in 2011 were awarded through the practice.

Some schools with high-need, low-performing students leaned much less heavily on credit recovery. At West Brooklyn Community High School, a transfer school, just 11 out of more than 2,000 credits awarded in 2011-2012 came through credit recovery.

Many of the schools that used credit recovery sparsely or not at all were selective schools, where students tend not to fall behind often. At Brooklyn Technical High School, the specialized school that by far awards the most credits each year of any city school, just 12 credits out of more than 70,000 were earned through credit recovery in the 2011-2012 school year.

Despite rebutting allegations that credit recovery had proliferated inappropriately in many city schools, Department of Education officials announced in February 2012 that they would crack down on the practice as part of a broad set of policy changes designed to guard against graduation rate inflation. The changes followed an audit of crediting and graduation data at 60 high schools.

Starting last year, students can’t make up more than three core academic courses through credit recovery. They also are required to attend 66 percent of the class they failed in order to be eligible to take a credit recovery class. And students can now take credit recovery classes only in the same year as they failed their course.

Although the new policies did not take effect until the 2012-2013 school year, many schools used credit recovery less often in 2012, according to the city data. Oroszlany said knowing that the restrictions were coming influenced his use of credit recovery at Mott Hall V.

Another person said that as a principal, he made changes to his credit recovery policies more to stay out of trouble and out of public scrutiny than in the best interest of his students.

“We felt that if we didn’t find ways to keep up we would get killed on the P.R.,” said the principal, who declined to give his name because he did not want to discuss department policy publicly. But he added that the new restrictions were important because the “rules were ambiguous and people created their own interpretation.”

Some schools saw their credit recovery rates rise in 2011-2012, lending credence to anecdotal reports that some schools were encouraging students to make up missed credits before the new restrictions took effect. The Preparatory Academy for Writers in Queens awarded less than 1 percent of credits through credit recovery in 2010-2011 but used the practice for more than 7 percent of credits the following year, for example.

Some educators have complained that principals used credit recovery to inflate their graduation rates. That’s what seems to have happened at A Philip Randolph High School, where graduation rates soared by 30 points in 2009. A guidance counselor at the school later told GothamSchools that she was instructed to enroll dozens of failing seniors into online credit recovery courses just weeks before the school’s graduation day so that they could earn their diploma on time. The principal at the school, Henry Rubio, resigned that year amid an investigation into the school’s credit recovery practices. In 2011 and 2012, the school’s credit recovery rates were well below the city average.

Critics of the Bloomberg administration say the school’s story has been all too common.

“In a good credit recovery program, students who need to catch up on material they haven’t mastered would work on solid research and writing assignments, or conduct experiments in a science lab,” said United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew. “But once the DOE decided to count credit accumulation as part of a high school’s grade and a principal’s rating, in too many schools the answer to this problem was to have the kids spend a few hours plugged into a computer.”

This story was originally published on Sept. 23 at 11:19 p.m.

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.