By the numbers

Aspiring teachers struggled on new tests, data show, prompting diversity debate

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki

Black and Hispanic college students in New York fared worse on new teacher certification tests than their white counterparts, new data show, reprising concerns that efforts to improve teacher quality could undermine a simultaneous goal to boost diversity.

In the 2013-14 school year, 48 percent of aspiring black teachers and 56 percent of aspiring Hispanic teachers passed a new, more rigorous literacy exam, compared to 75 percent of their white peers, according to the data. The achievement gaps were also significant on a second new exam that measures candidates’ grasp of teaching methods for children with special learning needs.

The new tests are designed to make the profession more selective, and pass rates for all students have dropped. And while deans at colleges of education have quietly fretted that their black and Hispanic students would be more likely to be excluded, some were surprised when they saw the breakdown, which has not been released publicly but which a state education official provided to Chalkbeat this week.

“The statistics are quite alarming,” said Harriet Fayne, dean of Lehman College’s School of Education in the Bronx.

Now, some education officials are using the data to argue that the State Education Department should not require the tests for certification for at least one more year. They say colleges have not had enough time to adjust their curriculum to the new exams’ standards, while others questioned if they even measured the right skills.

Underpinning their concerns are that the tougher standards will lead to fewer black and Hispanic teachers at a time when the public school student population has become increasingly diverse. In New York City public schools, the share of black or Hispanic students — 68 percent — is almost double that of black and Hispanic teachers, who comprise just 35 percent of the teaching workforce.

“We need to have professionals who represent the children we serve,” said Regent Kathleen Cashin, who provided the data after citing it at this week’s Board of Regents meeting. Cashin said her numbers came from the state, although a spokesman for the department said he was unable to confirm them Wednesday.

Cashin wants to either lower the scores needed to pass or to provide an easier exam to candidates who fail the more difficult ones. But those ideas received some pushback from department officials who said stemming the flow of unprepared and unqualified teachers into classrooms was urgent.

“Diversity of the workforce, absolutely, is critical,” said Senior Deputy Commissioner Ken Wagner. But, he added, “I think we all want … to send a very clear message that it should be difficult to enter the profession.”

Last year’s results mirror longstanding racial disparities on teacher licensing tests. The issue has been the subject of court cases across the country, including in New York, whose literacy exams in the 1990s were ruled discriminatory in part because of 40-point achievement gaps.

But more recent versions of the exam became so easy that 99 percent of test-takers passed. That changed last year with the introduction of three new tests designed align with nationally established teaching standards. (Candidates also have to pass a fourth exam that covers a specific content area.)

Led by Cashin, the Regents this week directed Wagner to study how they might delay using the exams for one year and continue to address diversity concerns.

The debate reflects the complexity and competing values of the movement to improve teacher quality. Some researchers have found links between academic achievement and students who are matched to teachers with similar backgrounds, though that has not been found to be the most important factor. Black and Hispanic teachers are also already more likely to teach students in high-poverty city schools.

State officials have been revising teacher certification standards as one of many initiatives to meant improve teacher preparation, particularly for needy schools. Alternative certification programs like Teach for America and NYC Teaching Fellows specifically target those schools. Their approval of new training models, such as Relay and residency programs, as well as their directives to traditional education schools to overhaul their programs, have followed a common acknowledgement that colleges of education had grown too focused on theory and not enough on preparing teachers for the realities of the job.

“The reality is that all across the country – not just in the Empire State – too many teacher prep programs are not selective about whom they admit, and they are not offering and requiring sufficiently rigorous coursework,” said Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has adopted the cause, too. This year, he is pushing for the ability to close down any education programs where fewer than half of students pass their certification exams for three consecutive terms.

The hardest exam to pass last year, for all teachers, was the new literacy test. Called the Academic Literacy Skills test, it measures reading and writing aptitude based on the Common Core standards. Statewide, 68 percent of teachers passed — though most only met a lower proficiency bar aligned to eighth-grade English standards.

The second exam, called Educating All Students, evaluates a candidate’s knowledge of teaching strategies for English language learners, students with disabilities, and students with other special needs. Seventy-nine percent of all aspiring teachers passed the exam last year, and pass rates for white, Hispanic, and black students were 83 percent, 67 percent, and 62 percent, respectively.

Pass rates for Asian candidates were 65 percent on the literacy exam and 71 percent on Educating All Students.

Of 12,652 students who took the literacy exam, most were white — about 61 percent. Ten percent of students were Hispanic, 7.5 percent were black, and 5 percent were Asian, and the breakdown of students who took the EAS was similar.

A national exam called the Teacher Performance Assessment, or edTPA, is the third new test. It requires students to gather video of their own classroom lessons into a portfolio to demonstrate and explain their teaching skills. Eighty-one percent of students passed that test, although those who failed could still get certified if they passed the old literacy exam.

Fayne, the Lehman College dean, said a variety of factors could be behind the persistent racial achievement gaps, which emerge more broadly even before students enter kindergarten. But explanations are less important than ensuring diversity remains a priority in any teacher-preparation policy changes, she said.

“Regardless of the ‘why,’ we still have to address the overarching question: Will we be able to recruit, prepare, and retain teachers who look like the children in our urban classrooms?” Fayne said.

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.