grading the grades

Architects of school grades concede errors as overhaul looms

Warren Simmons, of the Annenberg for School Reform, speaks during a panel discussion about New York City's accountability system.
Warren Simmons, of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, speaks during a panel discussion about New York City’s accountability system.

Two architects of New York City’s controversial school progress reports acknowledged on Tuesday that the accountability system they developed needs to change.

Law school professor James Liebman, who devised the A-F grading system “from scratch” in 2007, said the school grades were initially useful as a “powerful motivator of educators to take responsibility” for student learning in their schools.

But after six years of relying on a narrow set of data — primarily state test scores and graduation rates —  to hold schools accountable, Liebman said now is a good moment for “toning down on performance management.”

Liebman’s suggestions, which hewed closely to recommendations offered Tuesday by the Department of Education’s chief academic officer Shael Polakow-Suransky, come as an overhaul looms for the controversial grading system. Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio has said he would do away with the school grades, although he hasn’t yet said whether he would maintain the underlying data that contributes to them.

Liebman and Polakow-Suransky appeared on a panel discussion hosted by the CUNY Institute for Education Policy, a think tank run by former state education chief David Steiner, at which Polakow-Suransky released a report called “What’s Next for School Accountability in New York City?” The report outlined six areas for de Blasio to consider when he takes over in January.

The report is the latest effort by officials at the Department of Education, in their final weeks in charge, to influence how their favored policies fare once de Blasio and his chancellor takes over. Two weeks ago, a city-commissioned report on the way the system’s 1,800 schools are supported similarly detailed both strengths and weaknesses.

The issues that Polakow-Suransky, who is rumored to be seeking a position in the de Blasio administration, raised were in line with oft-cited criticism of the system. The department has tended to dismiss that criticism as attacks “by special interests” on the Bloomberg administration’s education reform policies, but Polakow-Suransky took a different tone on Tuesday.

“We do know where we struggle,” said Suransky, who declined to comment on speculation of his interest in working for de Blasio. “And we do know where the challenges and weaknesses encountered are.”

One weakness, Polakow-Suransky said, is that the city’s progress reports emphasize test scores, particularly in the elementary and middle schools. The emphasis, when combined with traditionally “weak” state exams, could have negative consequences in the classroom.

“If you have weak exams and if they send a signal to teachers that all you need focus on is the basic skills, then what you get is a narrowed curriculum,” he said. “And in the weakest classrooms, in the weakest schools, you get a focus on drilling to get to achievements just on those exams, which actually ignores the broader needs of students and often leads to a situation where kids are disengaged and aren’t actually learning the things that they need.”

He recommended factoring other data points, such as the department’s quality reviews and quarterly report card grades, into schools’ progress reports. Not including the quality reviews in the first place was “a mistake” that Liebman said he regretted.

The focus on a relatively small set of data has stifled creativity at stronger schools, Polakow-Suransky said, adding that some schools now avoid introducing new programs because they fear a negative impact on their grades. The concern is compounded by the fact that progress reports reflect only a single year’s performance, reducing principals’ incentive to pursue longer-term initiatives, he said.

The progress reports are also meant to inform parents about their children’s schools, but Polakow-Suransky and Liebman both acknowledged that the reports have not always achieved that purpose. In particular, a common criticism is that the grades are confusing to parents when they see that two schools at entirely different student performance levels — a school serving mostly high-need students compared with screened school that only has high performing students — can end up with the same letter grade if their students make similar progress.

“It may not give the info that, say, a parent is looking for when they’re trying to find a school,” Polakow-Suransky said, adding that a balance was needed to retain a way to credit schools that served more challenging students.

“Part of the solution, I think, to that is figuring out a way to represent this data in different forms for different audiences, where you actually create tools for parents that are different  to the tools that you create for folks that are supporting and managing the schools.”

Liebman said he learned a valuable lesson about parent participation in education policy under the Bloomberg years. He said he presumed that better results for the system as a whole — pointing specifically to higher graduation and college-readiness rates — would be good enough for parents in the school system.

“The idea was that if you give parents better results, better service — 311 sorts of things — and more choice, then you don’t need politics, they don’t need participation, they don’t need to be involved because they’ll get what they want as a consumer,” Liebman said. “And I think that’s true for some things, but it turns out that public education is something that parents really, deeply want to be involved in.”

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.