Building Better Schools

Tennessee lawmakers want to roll back A-F school grades before they’ve been given

Just a year after deciding that every school should get a single letter grade, Tennessee lawmakers are poised to take it back.

Last year, a bill requiring all schools to get an A-F grade starting in 2018 sailed through the legislature. Supporters said parents needed an easy tool to understand how their child’s school was performing, even as critics — including many educators — argued that school quality can’t easily be summed up by a single letter grade.

But a lot can change in a year. School grading systems have fallen out of favor in many of the 18 states that have instituted A-F systems in recent years.

And Tennessee is likely to be the latest to join them, with a bill revising the grading system appearing on track for passage after sailing through a House education subcommittee last week.

The bill, drafted by the state’s superintendents group and supported by the State Department of Education, would give schools multiple letter grades — for how much students’ test scores improve, how high the scores are, and other measures “deemed appropriate” by the department.

Schools would also get one overall rating, ranging from “exemplary” to “priority,” for schools in the bottom 5 percent statewide.

Proponents say the change is necessary to illuminate where schools are struggling and to allow their successes to shine.

“If you oversimplify with the letter grade, you prevent people from looking more deeply into what the issues might actually be,” said Wayne Miller, president of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.

He compared the current grading system to giving students only a single grade on their report card, rather than separate grades for each subject. “It’s important for us to know that you struggle in language arts, but it’s not important to pull down your entire performance because of that,” Miller said.

Some lawmakers have expressed concern that the policy revision won’t help parents.

“We need something more descriptive that says ‘this school’s in trouble,’” said Rep. Harry Brooks, a Knoxville Republican who chairs the House Administration and Planning committee. “The difference between the 6th and 10th percentile is not a lot.”

Lawmakers in the full education committee signaled Monday that they will advance the bill.  

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.

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.”