By the numbers

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

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.

father knows best

How a brush with death convinced one dad to get his diploma, with a boost from the Fatherhood Academy

PHOTO: Courtesy of Steven Robles
Steven Robles with his family

Steven Robles thought he might not live to see his daughter’s birth.

In May 2016, the 20-year-old was in the hospital after being shot during what he described as an argument in his neighborhood.

A year later, Robles just graduated from City University of New York’s Fatherhood Academy. He passed his high school equivalency exam and is happily celebrating his daughter Avare’s 8-month birthday.

“That conflict is what got me into the program, and what happened to me before she was born motivated me to stay in the program,” Robles said. “It motivated me to manage to pass my GED.”

Robles grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn and attended Franklin K. Lane High School. Though he liked his teachers, Robles said other students at the school were not “mature enough,” and the disorderly school environment made it hard for him to concentrate.

A quiet student, Robles said teachers would often overlook his presence in the classroom. Between that and friction with other classmates, Robles lost interest in school.

“My parents didn’t try to help me, either,” Robles said. “Nobody really tried to help me with that school, so I just stopped going.”

It was a whole different experience for him once he arrived at the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College, a program run by CUNY for unemployed and underemployed fathers ages 18 through 28. The Academy, now partnering with the New York City Housing Authority at its LaGuardia location, was launched in 2012 and also has programs at Hostos and Kingsborough Community Colleges.

“I have interviewed many of the men who come into the program and I often ask the question, ‘What brought you here?'” said Raheem Brooks, program manager of the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College. “Mostly every young man says, ‘I’m here because I want to create a better life for my child than I had.’ So, I think the main theme of the program is that we help promote intergenerational change.”

At the LaGuardia branch, 30 students attend classes three times a week over the course of 16 weeks. Subjects include mathematics, social studies, and writing for students seeking to get their high school equivalency diplomas. Students also attend workshops run by counselors who guide them in professional development and parenting.

Robles found out about the program after seeing a flier for it in his social worker’s office at Graham Windham, a family support services organization. Curious to see what the Academy offered, he called to find out more and officially enrolled after passing a test to prove he could read above seventh-grade level.

“Before the Academy, I was not really into school at all,” Robles said. “But when I got there, it just changed my life. In this program, I didn’t know anybody there, there were no distractions. It made me more focused, and I just really wanted to get my GED and education.”

What helped Robles the most was getting to learn from the other fathers in the class, who were going through similar experiences as him.

“Little things I didn’t know, I learned from them because they were also fathers,” Robles said. “I just liked the way they were teaching us.”

In fact, he liked the Academy so much, he doesn’t plan to leave. He is applying to study criminal justice at LaGuardia Community College and to become a mentor for the Academy next year.

Currently, Robles lives with his grandparents, his daughter and the mother of his child. Getting a place for his family is next on his to-do list, he said.

“Avare always has a smile on her face and always puts a smile on my face,” Robles said. “She motivates me to get up and do what I have to do. Anything I could do for her, I will.”

Though school did not play a huge role in his life growing up, that is not what Robles wants for his daughter. He said after participating in the Academy, he wants to make sure Avare stays motivated and in school.

“I hear a lot from people about how they think they can’t do it,” Robles said. “I almost lost my life before my daughter was born and that motivated me. If I could do it, you could do it.”

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.