special law

City endorses legislative push to diversify elite high schools

PHOTO: Stuyvesant High School

The de Blasio administration is endorsing a renewed push to change how the city’s most elite public schools accept students.

Chancellor Carmen Fariña backed a bill on Monday that would require the city’s specialized high schools to use more than a single test score as their student admissions criteria, an effort grounded in the administration’s desire to increase diversity within the eight schools and reduce the emphasis on testing.

“As the Chancellor has said before, a student is more than the result of one exam,” Devora Kaye said in a statement.

The endorsement comes just hours after state lawmakers unveiled a bill at the United Federation of Teachers headquarters that would allow the Specialized High School Admissions Test to count alongside attendance, class grades, and state exam scores in admissions decisions. It was also the first clear signal of how the city will move forward with de Blasio’s campaign promise to change the admissions standards, since de Blasio and Fariña have offered few details about preferred alternatives in their first months in office.

“We cannot have a dynamic where some of our greatest educational options are only available to people from certain backgrounds,” de Blasio said in April.

With just days left in the state legislative sessions, the efforts are mostly symbolic. Even the bill’s sponsor, Simcha Felder, who chairs the Senate’s New York City education subcommittee, acknowledged that passage might have a better chance next year.

Critics of the single-test standard have long protested that smart students who don’t have access to high-quality elementary or middle schools, or who can’t afford pricey test-preparation programs, are at a disadvantage. And many of the specialized schools, including Stuyvesant High School and Staten Island Technical High School, are among the high schools that perennially serve the lowest number of black and Hispanic students in the city.

The specialized high schools enroll relatively few black and Hispanic students, a racial gap that has widened at some of the schools in recent years. This year, 11 percent of offers to specialized schools went to black and Hispanic students, even though they represent nearly 70 percent of the city’s public school student population. At Stuyvesant High School, for instance, just 3 percent of seats were offered to black and Hispanic students.

But the schools have many defenders who say the system is a bastion of egalitarianism.

“The advantage of using the test is that it eliminates favoritism and offers every child, in a simple way, to get in,” said Larry Cary, president of the Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation, which opposes the legislation.

A single-test admission system for the city’s specialized high schools has been used, and criticized, for decades. The admissions process for the city’s top two high schools was enshrined in state law in 1971, and lawmakers eventually added one more school, Brooklyn Technical.

The city controls the admissions requirements at five of the city’s eight specialized high schools, but officials have said they are waiting for the state to change the law to move forward with their own policy changes. Fariña has said she has already been meeting with principals from the specialized high schools, an area of admissions policies that the administration most wants to change.

The proposed legislation would require all eight schools to use a multiple-measure approach. A similar bill was introduced two years ago, but never won support from the Bloomberg administration.

Union officials also called on the city to pour money into a summer program to better prepare disadvantaged students who traditionally struggle on the exam.

On Monday, UFT President Michael Mulgrew noted that the change would shift the admissions systems similar to those at top high schools nationwide.

“If it’s good enough for Harvard and Yale, it should be good enough for the students of New York City,” Mulgrew said. “The idea that we are the anomaly in this country, where we use one single exam as the only criteria for … whether they get into these schools or not, is wrong.”

A backlash against testing has spurred some of the most recent criticism. Adriano Espaillat, a state senator running for Congress, said he sponsored the bill because the SHSAT was part of a “high-stakes testing model” that caused too much stress for families and children.

The proposed legislation was met with skepticism from many students, teachers, and alumni from specialized high schools. Supporters of the single-test approach say it is the fairest way to assess whether a student can handle the rigor of going to the city’s most demanding high schools, where high expectations and a culture of competition are pervasive.

Cary said that Brooklyn Tech’s alumni are open to reviewing new admissions criteria for the schools, including whether the admissions tests give students who prepare for the test a leg up. But he said nothing should be done until proposed changes are discussed publicly.

Tesa Wilson, whose daughter is a sophomore at Stuyvesant, noted that changes to the admissions system don’t address the educational inequities that emerge earlier in a student’s life.

“If you’re looking to do advanced work in high school, that’s a trajectory you need to be on starting in sixth grade,” said Wilson, who is also the president of District 14’s Community Education Council. “Most parents, they’re not even thinking about high school placement until eighth grade and by then it is too late. You’ve already missed the bus.”

At Stuyvesant on Monday, students were split on the admissions issue.

“I think it would have a positive effect for people who can’t afford tutoring,” said Elias Saric, a sophomore. “Lots of people just get in because they have money for tutoring. But if you can perform well in school and be involved in the community, that doesn’t involve money, but it shows your positive qualities.”

Others said Stuyvesant was more diverse than it appears, and its student body had a high proportion of first-generation immigrants from Asian countries.

Joanna Pan, a sophomore, said she personally liked an admissions policy that would add more diversity,

“Personally, I think that it’s better, but honestly, for Stuy you should get a higher test score to get in here because the workload is way too much. Even if they can help the community, it doesn’t mean that they’re able to pass all of the grades,” she said.

There was also fear that changing the admissions standards would affect the school’s overall quality and negatively affect other student minority groups. “Asian immigrants—who make up the majority of the school’s population—would be indirectly discriminated against,” said Jack Cahn, a senior.

Assembly Member Karim Camara, one of the bill’s sponsors, said those fears were misguided.

This is not about watering down the standards, it’s not about making it subjective, so teachers or principals pick their favorite students,” said Camara. “This is not about ensuring a certain percentage of students of any ethnic group. This is about identifying students or merit, and again multiple measures is really the only way to activate that.”

Sources said that they did not expect the bill to pass during the last couple of weeks of the legislative session, and the bill was intended to apply pressure to New York City lawmakers whose constituents might push back against efforts to eliminate the current admissions system.

“We will discuss it with our members,” said Mike Whyland, a spokesman for Speaker Sheldon Silver.

Want the latest in New York City education news? Follow Chalkbeat on Facebook or @ChalkbeatNY on Twitter.

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.