Slamming the Exam

At Success Academy schools, high-octane test prep leaves nothing to chance

PHOTO: Success Academy
Some 2,300 Success Academy students attended a "Slam the Exam" rally before last year's state English tests. The network goes to great lengths to make sure students are ready for the exams.

Before the state math tests began this week, the Success Academy charter school network had left nothing up to chance.

School leaders had provided teachers with color-coded agendas with precise instructions for every few minutes of test days, along with boxes of supplies that might come in handy — from pencils and tissues to extra clothes for students and deodorizing powder to sop up vomit.

Teachers had been taught the proper way to hand out tissues during the test (pass the student a new sheet first, then use a second sheet to grab the used tissue). They knew to set their classroom temperatures to between 66 and 70 degrees, and to call each student’s family every evening before a test to remind them of the next morning’s exam.

On test days, some teachers would take Success-funded cabs to pick up chronically late students (“Taxi Scholars,” as the agendas refer to them). Outside auditors, who had already observed the network’s practice tests, would monitor the real exams to safeguard against charges of test-rigging.

But students were perhaps the most prepared of all. They had spent weeks taking practice tests modeled off the actual state exams. They starred in test “dress rehearsals,” where exact testing conditions were simulated. Some had even practiced tearing perforated reference sheets out of mock test booklets.

If history is any guide, the preparation will pay off. Last year, Success students’ pass rates on the new and much harder state exams beat those of every other city charter school network and far surpassed the city and state averages.

Success says test prep is a minor factor in its students’ remarkable scores. More important, it insists, are the network’s curriculum, teacher training, and longer school days.

“No amount of test preparation will enable a child to do well on these challenging tests without extremely high-quality instruction,” Success CEO Eva Moskowitz said in a statement.

Success is the city’s largest and most polarizing charter school network, and its high test scores have been the subject of passionate debate. Critics have said the network has boosted its scores by “counseling out” hard-to-teach students (a charge Success denies) and by not replacing many students who leave.

What’s less debatable is that outstanding test scores are crucial for Success Academy. They have enabled the network to attract an army of well-heeled, results-oriented donors. And recently they bolstered the network’s case when it appealed to lawmakers for support after the city blocked some Success schools from moving into public buildings.

To ensure it achieves those results, Success invests an extraordinary amount of time and resources into preparing students for the state exams, according to interviews and conversations with current teachers, parents, and students from several Success schools, as well as a review of internal Success documents.

Many of those interviewed said the work leading up to the test was rigorous and conceptual, a far cry from rote “drill-and-kill” prep, and a valuable use of school time considering the high stakes attached to the exams.

“I’m all for it,” said Maria Torres, who drives her daughter from Staten Island to a Success school in Harlem each day. “The more instruction they get, the more prepared and confident they are.”

But others said the intensive test preparation distorts students’ view of the purpose of education and detracts from learning not directly related to the exams.

“I think it’s important that if they’re going to be tested on something, they feel prepared to do it,” said one teacher who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity. “But I don’t think it needs to come at the expense of authentic learning, which is what’s happening.”

At Success, students encounter tasks modeled off those on state tests as early as the fall, when they are given network-produced packets with reading passages and questions during sessions called “Close Reading Mastery.” Around winter break, they take full practice tests. By March, students answer test-inspired questions every morning, and teachers report their daily scores to the network.

In the weeks leading up to the exams, test preparation dominates the school day.

Before the English tests, that means eight reading passages with questions every day at one school. In the lead-up to the math tests, another school’s schedule showed students taking a two-hour practice test in the morning and another two-hour practice test in the afternoon, with some students scheduled to spend recess going over wrong answers.

Teachers said they lose their own prep periods during these weeks and students miss out on academics — from reading about current events to studying history — that are not assessed by the state exams. To pack in more test prep, the network holds Saturday sessions and put off spring break until after the math exams. In the afternoons after the tests this week, students will solve practice problems modeled after the next day’s exams.

Some teachers and parents said all this preparation builds up students’ work ethic and tenacity, but others worried that it skews their sense of what it means to be successful.

“Their self worth is all tied to their performance on this test,” a teacher said.

The network goes to great lengths to keep students happy as they are chipping away at all this work.

Teachers receive boxes of prizes — basketballs, bracelets, magnets, puzzles, socks — to reward students based on their effort and scores on the daily practice tests. Other students earned Popeyes chicken, pizza, or trips to the park. One school paid a street vendor to pass out ice cream to students after last Saturday’s “Slam the Exam” prep session.

Students receive daily reports with their practice-test results. Those who achieve top scores have their headshots posted on a hallway bulletin board, called the “3s and 4s Club,” in one school. But low-scoring students also see their results posted in school hallways. Those students, along with ones who made careless mistakes or were not invested in the practice tests, miss recess to attend extra work sessions, called “Effort Academy” or “Revision Academy.”

“If there’s noticeable areas for improvement, then we work on it,” said one teacher. “Not as a punishment, but as an opportunity to improve.”

Success also finds ways to keep teachers invested.

The network pays for catered lunches for staff during the weeks of test preparation and issued every teacher new Converse sneakers. (The shoes come in handy on test days, since Success teachers are required to wear soft-soled shoes to reduce noise.)

More galvanizing are the daily, network-wide emails that rank teachers by name based on the percentage of their students who passed that morning’s practice tests. Multiple teachers said they were motivated by the rankings — “You want to have your name on the top of that list,” said one — and noted that top-ranked teachers share tips and materials.

Those rankings may carry consequences: A bottom-ranked teacher was told she is being demoted from a lead to an assistant teacher, according to two teachers who learned of the move. They find the ranking system demoralizing.

“I constantly feel criticized and under pressure,” one said.

Kevin Heffel, Success Academy’s instructional chief, said in a statement that the network believes educators should be held accountable for “preparing our scholars to succeed,” and that it provides teachers “extensive professional development and support to help them meet this goal.”

Heffel added that Success considers test preparation a matter of equity.

“Minority children have historically been denied educational opportunities because they haven’t been adequately prepared for standardized testing,” he said. “We owe it to our kids to make sure they’re ready.”

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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.

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.