Making the grade

Tennessee schools soon will receive letter grades. But will poverty be considered?

Tennessee is developing a new system to evaluate its schools based on the same A-F grading scale its students receive. But not everyone agrees on what should constitute an A.

This week, officials with the State Department of Education looked closely at grading models as they seek to comply with both a new state law that requires each school be assigned a letter grade and a new federal law that focuses on all aspects of school accountability.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has strong feelings about what shouldn’t be a factor: poverty.

“Poverty … shouldn’t be the reason you don’t even have an opportunity to get an A,” she told the State Board of Education on Thursday.

As such, state officials are proposing two avenues for schools to get an A on achievement: 1) high test scores, which would tend to favor schools with fewer poor students and more resources, and 2) substantial test score growth, which would provide a pathway for schools that are more diverse.

But others think that opening up the top grade to schools that aren’t necessarily top performers would undermine the grading system.

Williamson County Schools Superintendent Mike Looney says growth is important, but that achievement scores are more important. He represents one of the state’s highest-performing and wealthiest districts and participated Thursday night in a town hall meeting in Nashville to discuss Tennessee’s accountability plan under the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.

Earlier Thursday, Wendy Tucker, a State Board of Education member representing part of Nashville and Williamson County, expressed similar concerns. She said that including growth in a grade would be misleading, and not in the spirit of the state law.

“That statute was intended for parents to be able to look at a school and see what level of education they’re getting,” said Tucker, who is also co-CEO of Project Renaissance, a nonprofit organization focused on Nashville’s public schools. “I think growth is great. I just don’t think it’s an A.”

But McQueen and her team defended the two-pronged model. Test scores don’t paint the full picture of school quality, said Assistant Commissioner Nakia Towns. “Just because you walk into a school that has a lot of high-achieving students does not mean there’s a culture of excellence there,” Towns said.

McQueen added that the state’s education messaging as a whole has been around growth, rather than raw achievement. Education leaders often tout Tennessee as “the fastest improving in the nation” as the state’s scores on national tests have moved from the bottom to the middle.

“Growth is the model we have used, and it has really worked for Tennessee,” McQueen said. “We believe that this is a fair, just model that we’ll continue to get feedback on.”

Under the state’s ESSA plan, one group of schools could not make an A. Schools that are dubbed “priority schools” — those ranking academically in the bottom 5 percent that also have low growth scores for two consecutive years — would receive automatic Fs.

While test scores or growth would be the driving factor in a school’s grade under the state’s proposed plan, schools also would be evaluated on chronic absenteeism, graduation rates, access to college credit courses, and the proficiency rates of  English language learners.

ESSA requires for the first time that states give their schools “summative” ratings. Those ratings don’t have to be A to F letter grades, but Tennessee’s legislature passed a law last year requiring schools be assigned a letter grade. The legislation was promoted by the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a research and advocacy organization founded by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and has been adopted in several other states.

One, Virginia, already has repealed school letter grades, in part because ‘F’ schools had difficulty recruiting teachers. Other critics charge that letter grades lack nuance and oversimplify the link between poverty and low test scores, potentially stigmatizing low-performing schools that receive Fs, as well as students who attend those schools.

rules and regs

New York adds some flexibility to its free college scholarship rules. Will it be enough for more students to benefit?

PHOTO: Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo delivered his 2017 regional State of the State address at the University at Albany.

New York is offering more wiggle room in a controversial “Excelsior” scholarship requirement that students stay in-state after graduating, according to new regulations released Thursday afternoon.

Members of the military, for example, will be excused from the rule, as will those who can prove an “extreme hardship.”

Overall, however, the plan’s rules remain strict. Students are required to enroll full-time and to finish their degrees on time to be eligible for the scholarship — significantly limiting the number who will ultimately qualify.

“It’s a high bar for a low-income student,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a leading expert on college affordability and a professor at Temple University. “It’s going to be the main reason why students lose the scholarship.”

The scholarship covers free college tuition at any state college or university for students whose families earn less than $125,000 per year. But it comes with a major catch: Students who receive Excelsior funding must live and work in New York state for the same number of years after graduation as they receive the scholarship. If they fail to do so, their scholarships will be converted to loans, which the new regulations specify have 10-year terms and are interest-free.

The new regulations allow for some flexibility:

  • The loan can now be prorated. So if a student benefits from Excelsior for four years but moves out of state two years after graduation, the student would only owe two years of payments.
  • Those who lose the scholarship but remain in a state school, or complete a residency in-state, will have that time count toward paying off their award.
  • Members of the military get a reprieve: They will be counted as living and working in-state, regardless of where the person is stationed or deployed.
  • In cases of “extreme hardship,” students can apply for a waiver of the residency and work requirements. The regulations cite “disability” and “labor market conditions” as some examples of a hardship. A state spokeswoman said other situations that “may require that a student work to help meet the financial needs of their family” would qualify as a hardship, such as a death or the loss of a job by a parent.
  • Students who leave the state for graduate school or a residency can defer repaying their award. They would have to return to New York afterwards to avoid having the scholarship convert to a loan.

Some of law’s other requirements were also softened. The law requires students to enroll full-time and take average of 30 credits a year — even though many SUNY and CUNY students do not graduate on time. The new regulations would allow students to apply credits earned in high school toward the 30-credit completion requirement, and stipulates that students who are disabled do not have to enroll full-time to qualify.

School Choice

One of the top ranked high schools in the state just joined Indianapolis Public Schools

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Herron High School is the latest addition to the IPS innovation network.

One of Indianapolis’ most sought after charter high schools just joined Indianapolis Public Schools — an unusual shift in a relationship that has long been competitive.

The IPS board voted to add Herron High School, a charter school on the northside, to the district portfolio of innovation schools at a meeting Thursday. Board member Elizabeth Gore was the only one to oppose the measure.

The move is the latest example of district collaboration with charter schools, which were seen in the past as rivals for students.

“Way back at the beginning, there was this huge animosity between IPS and charter schools,” said Herron board chair Joanna Taft, who has been involved with the school since it opened in 2006. “It’s really exciting to be able to see the charter schools and public schools start coming together.”

Herron and a second campus expected to open this fall, Riverside High School, are now under the IPS umbrella, but the schools still retain virtually all of their independence. The teachers are employed directly by the charter network and are not part of the IPS union. And unlike most innovation schools, neither campus is in an IPS building.

The deal offers the charter schools an influx of cash and extra control over which neighborhoods they serve. IPS will add well-regarded schools to the list of high schools on its books, and it will get credit for Herron’s test scores and other academic outcomes when the district is assessed by the state.

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said the district wanted to add Herron to the innovation network so the classical liberal arts curriculum is available to more IPS students.

“The access to the classical model, which currently doesn’t exist in our district and … has a strong track record of success is obviously appealing to us,” Ferebee said. “We want to ensure that we give our students access to this option.”

Both Herron and Riverside are located within the boundaries of IPS, but the schools also draw students from nearby township and suburban communities. About half the students who attend Herron live in IPS boundaries, said Taft.

The school, which regularly ranks among the top Indiana high school, has historically drawn high-achieving students from IPS. But it has faced criticism for having student demographics that don’t mirror the community. Herron enrolls about 35 percent students of color, compared to about 80 percent of IPS students. Additionally, about 32 percent of Herron students are poor enough to get subsidized meals, less than half the rate in IPS.

Because IPS educates so many poor students, it gets more money from the state. Next year, the district is expected to receive a base rate of nearly $7,000 per student from the state, while Herron will receive about $5,500. Under the agreement approved tonight, IPS will give Herron and Riverside $6,000 per student next year.

If the school’s demographics fit the projections from the state, the district would be giving the charter schools more than $475,000 on top of what they would normally get from the state.

Herron leaders are taking steps to increase the number of low-income students they serve, said Taft. In addition to joining the innovation network, Herron will participate in EnrollIndy, a planned unified enrollment system that will allow students to apply to Herron and other charter schools through the same website as IPS schools.

Ferebee also said joining the new enrollment system should help increase the number of low-income students at the schools.

“We have been very intentional with this agreement around ensuring that the student population with these schools mirror as much as possible our IPS population,” said Ferebee.

As innovation network schools, Herron and Riverside will also be able to give students from the surrounding neighborhoods first dibs on seats at the schools, which could increase the number of students who live within IPS boundaries. (With a few exceptions, charter schools are required to admit students by lottery.)

That was one of the most important reasons Herron wanted to join the innovation network, said Taft. Riverside staff have been working closely with neighborhood leaders around the new campus, and they wanted to be able to give local students priority in admission.

That’s an attractive prospect for board member Kelly Bentley, because the nearby students who will get an edge come from within the IPS boundaries.

“I think that Herron is an excellent academic program,” she said. “I’m really excited that our students will have a better chance of getting into that program.”