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.

second chance

An embattled Harlem charter school that serves kids with disabilities will be allowed to keep its middle school — for now

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Opportunity Charter School

A Harlem charter school will be allowed to keep its middle school next school year, despite the fact that top city education officials have repeatedly ruled that it is too low performing to stay open.

That decision offers at least temporary relief for Opportunity Charter School, which has been embroiled in a dispute with the education department since March. The disagreement centers on whether city officials properly took into account the school’s students — over half of whom have a disability — when it judged the school’s performance.

The city’s education department, which oversees the school as its charter authorizer, tried to close the middle school and offered only a short-term renewal for the high school when the school’s charter came up for review earlier this year. The school appealed that decision, and was denied late last month.

But the education department is backing down from its position — at least for now. That reversal appears to be based mostly on logistics: A Manhattan Supreme Court judge has temporarily blocked the closure through at least mid-July in response to a lawsuit filed by the school and some of its parents last month, complicating the process of finding students new schools outside the normal admissions cycle.

“Students always come first, and given where we are in the school year, we will allow the middle school grades to remain open in 2017-18,” education department spokesman Michael Aciman wrote in an email on Thursday. Still, he noted, the department will continue to push to close the middle school in the future.

Kevin Quinn, a lawyer representing Opportunity Charter, said the city’s decision was the only responsible one, given that the school has already held its admissions lottery and made offers to parents.

“This is a wise decision by the [education department],” Quinn wrote in an email, “and [we] appreciate their acknowledgment that placement of this population at this time would be significantly disruptive.”

language proficiency

Educators working on creating more bilingual students worry new state requirements aren’t high enough

A second grade class at Bryant Webster K-8 school in Denver (Joe Amon, The Denver Post).

Colorado educators who led the way in developing high school diploma endorsements recognizing bilingual students worry that new legislation establishing statewide standards for such “seals of biliteracy” sets the bar too low.

Two years ago, Denver Public Schools, Eagle County Schools and the Adams County School District 14 started offering the seal of biliteracy to their students. The three districts worked together to find a common way to assess whether students are fluent in English and another language, and recognize that on high school diplomas. Advocates say the seal is supposed to indicate to colleges and employers that students are truly bilingual.

A bill passed by state legislators this year that will go into effect in August sets a path for districts that want to follow that lead by outlining the minimum that students must do to prove they are fluent in English and in another language.

According to the new law, students must meet a 3.0 grade point average in their English classes and also earn a proficient score on the 11th grade state test, or on Advanced Placement or IB tests. For showing proficiency in the second language, students can either earn proficient scores on nationally recognized tests — or meet a 3.0 grade point average after four years of language classes.

Although educators say the law sends a message of support for bilingual education, that last criteria is one part of what has some concerned.

“It allows for proficiency in a world language to be established solely by completing four years of high school language classes,” said Jorge Garcia, executive director of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education. “Language classes in one school district may have a different degree of rigor than they do in another.”

The second language criteria should be comparable to the English criteria, several educators said. In the requirements set by Denver, Eagle County and Adams 14, students must at a minimum demonstrate language proficiency through a test score, or in some cases with a portfolio review and interview if a test is not available.

The three districts also catered their requirements based on what each community said was important. In Adams 14 and in Eagle schools, students must perform community service using their language skills. Students also have to do an interview in both languages with a community panel.

“Our school district team developed the community service criteria because we wanted our kids to have authentic practice in their languages,” said Jessica Martinez, director of multilingual education for Eagle County Schools. “We also wanted students to be a bridge to another community than their own. For example, one group of students created academic tutoring services for their peers who don’t yet speak a lot of English. Another student started tutoring her mom and her parents’ friends so they could get their GED.”

The state law doesn’t require students to do community service. But it does allow school districts to go above the state’s requirements when setting up their biliteracy programs.

“Thoughtful school districts can absolutely address these concerns,” Garcia said.

Several school districts in the state are looking to start their own programs. In March, the school board for the Roaring Fork School District in Glenwood Springs voted to start offering the seal. Summit School District also began offering the seal this year.

Leslie Davison, the dual language coordinator for Summit, said that although her program will change in the next year as she forms more clear requirements around some new tests, she will continue to have higher requirements than the state has set.

This year her students had prove proficiency in their second language by taking a test in that language. They also had to demonstrate English proficiency through the ACT. In addition, students did oral presentations to the community in both languages.

“Their expectations aren’t as high as mine are,” Davison said. “We’ll probably stay with our higher-level proficiencies. I do have some work to do in terms of how that’s going to look for next year, but I certainly don’t want to just use seat time.”

Meanwhile, the districts that started the seal are increasing their commitment to biliteracy so as many students as possible can be eligible to earn seals in the future.

The Adams 14 school district in Commerce City is using Literacy Squared, a framework written by local researchers for teaching students to read English by strengthening literacy in the native language. The program is being rolled up year by year and will serve students in 34 classrooms from preschool through fourth grade in the fall.

In Eagle County, Martinez said parents have shown such a strong demand for biliteracy that most elementary schools are now dual language schools providing instruction to all students in English for half of the school day and in Spanish for the other half.

Both districts are also increasing the offerings of language classes in middle and high school. The options are important for students who are native English speakers so they too can become bilingual and access the seal. For students whose primary language is not English, the classes can help ensure they don’t lose their primary language as they learn English.

Of Eagle’s 25 students who graduated with a seal of biliteracy this year, 17 were native Spanish speakers and eight were native English speakers.

“We want all kids to see their bilingualism is an asset,” Martinez said. “It’s huge for them.”