study says...

New report challenges de Blasio’s strategy for upping diversity in specialized HSs

Students take an AP exam at Bronx Science, one of New York City's specialized high schools.

Replacing the city’s Specialized High School Admissions Test wouldn’t significantly increase the diversity of the eight sought-after schools that use it, and could exclude even more black students, according to a new report.

The report from the Research Alliance for New York City Schools challenges the rationale behind Mayor Bill de Blasio’s interest in replacing the exam with a broader set of admissions criteria as a way to increase the share of black and Hispanic students at the specialized high schools. In 2014, just 11 percent of the offers to those schools went to black and Hispanic students, though they made up about 70 percent of the city’s eighth graders.

“Maybe it was naive, but I thought if you switched to more holistic measures, it would diversify the admissions pool considerably,” said Sean Corcoran, a New York University researcher who co-wrote the report. “It turns out that students disproportionately offered admission to specialized high schools are the same students who get high scores on the state tests and get high grades.”

Supporters of the current admissions system have long pointed out that many of the city’s screened high schools, which look at factors like attendance and school grades when making admissions decisions, have a higher percentage of white students than the specialized schools. But there has been little information available about what would happen if Bronx Science, for example, switched to a similar system.

To find out, the researchers simulated admissions scenarios with varying combinations of state scores, school grades, and attendance criteria using Department of Education data from 2005 to 2013. Using those criteria instead of the test, the researchers found, would tip the scales in favor of girls, who made up just 42 percent of students in the specialized high schools in 2013-14. Nixing the test would also increase the share of white students and Hispanic students admitted, reduce the share of Asian students, and in some cases reduce the share of black students, too.

They also found that a little more than half of the students admitted under those rules were the same students admitted using the SHSAT, “suggesting there is considerable overlap in students who would be admitted under different rules.”

“While there are some changes under these new methods, it’s not that earth-shattering,” Corcoran said.

If the criteria were to change, though, many students would probably also change their behavior and focus their efforts on grades or attendance, something their findings can’t account for, the researchers note. Their simulations also don’t account for qualitative factors like essays that could be a part of a revamped admissions system.

Still, the findings are clear enough to become a potential roadblock for the de Blasio administration’s effort to push admissions-policy changes. Even discussions of changes have provoked protests from a number of alumni groups and alarmed elected officials who represent neighborhoods with high proportions of Asian students. Meanwhile, state legislation addressing the issue — which would be necessary to change the admissions policies at three of the eight schools — has languished for years.

Just 6 percent of eighth graders who go through the high school admissions process get an offer from a specialized school, but those schools take up a disproportionate amount of the debate about admissions and enrollment because of the long records of schools like Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Tech of preparing students for success. If the central argument for eliminating the test turns out to be less than clear, support for sweeping changes could erode further.

“Today’s report highlights some significant challenges, but we remain committed to achieving our goal of having specialized high schools reflect the great diversity of our City,” department spokesman Harry Hartfield said in a statement.

Still, the report notes that there are other ways the city could help black and Hispanic students, girls, and members of other underrepresented groups claim more seats. Among students who scored equally high on state tests in seventh grade, students eligible for free lunch, girls, and Latino students are less likely to take the specialized high school test at all. And once they earn a seat at one of the schools, girls are 11 percentage points less likely to accept it.

Those numbers show that programs to encourage high achievers to prepare for and take the test could have a positive effect.

Hartfield said the city is continuing to analyze the data and expand access to free test prep. In December, officials told City Council members that they are asking all middle school guidance counselors to push the top 15 percent of their students to sign up for the SHSAT.

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

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.