After Graduation

City touts slight uptick in college readiness as new school reports go online

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer

Slightly more students left high school last year ready for college or jobs, though fewer than one-third of graduates met the academic skill requirements of the city’s public university system, according to city data released Monday.

The modest gains follow a small uptick in the state test scores of the city’s elementary and middle-school students, which were announced this summer. Those scores and the data about students’ preparedness for college or work are are included in the de Blasio administration’s new school-quality reports, which were posted online Monday.

Each school now gets two reports — one for families and one for educators— that include survey and school-observation findings alongside test scores and graduation rates. Most notably, the reports no longer rank schools or give them A-to-F letter grades, which the previous administration used to decide which schools to close.

Several parents praised the new reports Monday, saying they were glad to trade the bluntness of the letter grades for more nuanced school appraisals, even if it meant more work for them.

“Some parents would see the letter A and not read anything else,” said Dorna Phillip, whose son is sophomore at It Takes a Village Academy in East Flatbush. “This gives them a little more homework.”

The city included the information about students’ college readiness in an announcement Monday about the new school reports.

Among this year’s public high school graduates, 32 percent had high enough test scores to avoid remedial math and English classes at the City University of New York, the city said. Last year, 31 percent of graduates tested out of those review classes, up from 29 percent in 2012.

In addition, 51 percent of the class of 2013 enrolled in college, a work-training program, or public service after graduation, compared to 50 percent the year before.

And in the class of 2014, 46 percent of students passed at least one course or test — such as an Advanced Placement exam or a technical assessment tied to particular industry — meant to approximate college or professional-level work. The year before, 44 percent of students had taken those advanced courses.

The Bloomberg administration added those measures to its school ratings in 2012 after it became clear that even as more students graduated from high school, they were ill-equipped for college. (The vast majority of city high school graduates who enroll at CUNY must take remedial classes.)

Students who get a “taste of college” during high school through advanced classes or early-college programs tend to fare better after graduation, said Kim Nauer, the education project director at the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs. Taking just one such course lowers the odds that a student will need to take review classes in college, according to a 2013 report about college readiness that Nauer co-authored.

Despite the benefits of college-preparatory courses, most high schools offer a limited selection, Nauer noted. Only 28 out of 342 schools reviewed for the report offered advanced algebra, chemistry or physics classes.

“That is still a big giant question mark for the current chancellor,” Nauer said. “What’s the quality of the college-preparatory curriculum in each high school?”

The bar for students to prove they are ready to take CUNY classes is higher than the one they must meet to earn a high school diploma. While high school students must earn at least 65 points on the required exit exams to graduate, they must score 75 in English and 80 in math on those same Regents exams to skip CUNY’s remedial classes. (They can also use their scores on the SAT, ACT, or CUNY’s own entrance tests.)

Even high-performing schools can struggle to help students hit that target. At It Takes a Village Academy, for instance, 91 percent of students graduate in four years, compared to the city average of 66 percent in 2013. Still, just 16 percent of the small high school’s graduates meet the CUNY proficiency standards.

Principal Marina Vinitskaya pointed out that nearly a quarter of her students are still learning English and many arrive with minimal reading skills. She said even if they are not considered college ready by the time they graduate, it is still a major accomplishment for them to earn diplomas.

“The same students, when they go to other high schools,” she said, “they don’t graduate at all.”

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.