Achieving Diversity

More children took gifted tests in the Bronx and Brooklyn, but the number of children qualifying stayed the same

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

More New York City children took tests to qualify for gifted and talented kindergarten programs this year. But the number of students scoring high enough to attend those programs remained about the same.

The latest figures, released Thursday, come at a time when the city is debating the best way to diversify the city’s gifted programs. While 70 percent of New York City students are black or Hispanic, less than 30 percent of gifted students are.

While the overall number of test-takers went down slightly, the number of entering kindergartners who took the test went up 14.5 percent, to a total of more than 16,500, according to the city Department of Education. There were increases in every school district of the Bronx, and 10 out of 12 districts in Brooklyn — both historically underrepresented areas. The department has increased its outreach, mailing postcards to families, for instance, and sharing information about gifted at the city’s pre-K centers.

Still, the number of students who scored high enough to qualify for gifted stayed the same. The city noted there are typically year-to-year fluctuations.

But Halley Potter, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, a progressive think tank, pointed to a more systemic problem: The test itself poses a barrier for poor students, with scores reflecting uneven quality in pre-K programs or a lack of access to test prep, she said.

“The test is always going to be better at measuring social advantage than innate aptitude,” Potter said.

There have been similarly disappointing results in the city’s efforts to diversify elite specialized high schools, which base admissions on a single test. Though the city offered test prep programs and administered the test at a handful of middle schools in underrepresented communities, the number of black and Hispanic students who were offered admission to the schools didn’t budge this year. And the proportion of offers that went to black and Hispanic students stayed flat at just over 10 percent.

“It’s a paradox to think that some people aren’t doing well because some families aren’t getting into test prep, so we need more test prep,” Lazar Treschan, youth policy director at the Community Service Society, told Chalkbeat in March. “Test prep is the problem.”

The Bronx and Brooklyn borough presidents recently launched a task force to explore equity issues in both gifted and specialized high schools. They have argued that without access to gifted programs early on, black and Hispanic students are less likely to pass the specialized high school test.

“I am certainly happy that more kids from the Bronx are taking the test,” Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz said in a statement. “But there’s still a lot of work to be done to ensure that high-quality gifted and talented programs are available to children no matter where they live.”

New York City’s diversity problem in gifted programs can be traced back to changes made about a decade ago under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, according to Clara Hemphill, director of education policy and editor of InsideSchools, a review website with a focus on equity.

Previously, admission rules were set by individual districts or schools. But Bloomberg moved to standardize admission based on national standards.

“Though this sounds fair, it works against bright kids in low income neighborhoods,” she said. “In low-income neighborhoods, you may be two or three years ahead of your classmates, but not two or three years ahead of the national norm.”

As a result, gifted programs in some communities disappeared since there weren’t enough students who passed the test to fill a gifted class. The education department, which is generally seen as reluctant to expand gifted education, recently opened new programs in Brooklyn, the Bronx and in one under-enrolled school on the Upper West Side.

Those programs don’t rely on the gifted test for admission. Rather, students are identified based on teacher recommendations and report card grades, and the program doesn’t start until third grade. This year, more than 1,800 students were identified as eligible to apply.

“We continue to review ways to ensure G&T testing is equitable,” education department spokesman Will Mantell wrote in an email, “and maintain the high standards of the program.”

Clarification: This story has been edited to clarify that roughly ten percent of offers to specialized schools went to black and Hispanic students. That is not the pass rate for black and Hispanic test-takers.

reasons vs. excuses

Westminster schools loses on appeal seeking higher performance rating

A student at Westminster’s Hodgkins Elementary in 2013.

The state’s quality rating for Westminster Public Schools will not change after an appeal to the Colorado Board of Education Monday.

The board unanimously voted to deny the appeal after minimal discussion mostly criticizing the district for blaming poor performance on minority and disadvantaged students.

“The ‘why’ students are not performing at grade level is an excuse, but what it should do is give us a roadmap to remedy that failure,” said board member Steve Durham. “It’s our job to identify poor performance and further find remedies regardless of the reasons.”

Pam Swanson, Westminster’s superintendent and school board members said the state board members’ comments were ridiculous.

“We have very high expectations,” Swanson said. “Every teacher listening to that comment was disgusted because we know that we have high expectations. We know all of our kids can get there it just takes them longer.”

The district has argued that their annual performance evaluation was not legal because it discriminated against the district’s population of large numbers of English learners, mobile students and those who qualify for free or reduced price lunch.

They also contend the state isn’t making allowances to account for Westminster’s so-called “competency-based” learning model, which does away with grade levels and moves students instead based on when they’ve learned certain education standards. The district believes that by placing students into traditional grade levels based on their age for testing means they aren’t measuring what students are learning.

State education department officials disputed the district’s appeal stating in part that the district has the flexibility to determine student grade levels for testing purposes.

The decision means Westminster now must go through with an accountability hearing where the state board will be required to vote on action to turnaround the district. Proposed plans for that hearing on May 4 have already been prepared.

The meeting was packed by Westminster employees. A crowd of educators from the Westminster district were watching the meeting from outside the boardroom.

Looking for options

State board raised questions over plan for Pueblo schools and management partners

Charlotte Macaluso, right, speaks with Pueblo City Schools spokesman Dalton Sprouse on July 22, 2016. (Pueblo Chieftain file photo)

The Colorado Board of Education on Monday asked Pueblo City Schools and state officials to submit slightly different plans for three struggling schools by mid-June.

While the district already planned to partner with two outside companies to improve student performance at the three schools, the board directed state officials to give the outside companies more of a management role in the next version of the plan.

While the board approved improvement plans for several other schools and districts this month, its request for changes to the plan for Pueblo schools was unusual. It also means that in June the board will have two plans to choose from for a final order.

Board members on Monday asked district officials about the work the district has done in the past few years trying to improve performance with an innovation zone — or a group of schools granted similar waivers from some laws and policies — about leadership changes in the schools and at the district level and about whether there have been any successful “bright spots” in recent years.

Board members also questioned district officials on the role of the external companies, Achievement Network and Relay Graduate School of Education.

Charlotte Macaluso, Pueblo City Schools superintendent said the management companies would not govern the schools.

“They would serve as a partner to identify needs,” Macaluso said.

But board members weren’t sold on a partnership of equals, and directed state officials to create a governance plan outlining how the companies would work with the schools. They also expressed frustration at the lack of a formal vetting process for the companies that would work with the schools. The same issue came up at hearings for Greeley schools earlier in the day.

The three schools include Heroes Academy, a K-8, Risley International, a middle school, and Bessemer Elementary, where barely 9 percent of third-graders passed the state’s English test last spring.

The initial state and district proposals call for the three schools to work with two external companies. For Heroes and Risley, the recommendations also suggest allowing the schools to waive some district and state rules.

Risley got innovation status in 2012, giving it such flexibility. So far, the status has not improved the school’s performance. For Heroes the autonomies would be new.

A year ago, Pueblo City Schools was expected to pose the biggest test of the state’s school accountability system. A dozen of the city’s schools were on the state’s watch list for chronic poor performance on state standardized tests. However, most of the city’s schools came off that list last year.