State looking to shrink the pool of students requiring extra help

When state test scores were released last month, the huge drops in proficiency meant that thousands of additional failing city students now qualify for extra help mandated by the state. But state officials are working to ensure the number of students requiring those services doesn’t change dramatically.

The state education department will ask the Board of Regents to change regulations requiring schools to give extra support to all students who score a level 1 or 2 on state reading and math exams, according to a memo sent by deputy state education commissioner Ken Slentz last week. Last year’s tougher, Common Core-aligned tests meant that just 26.4 percent of city students cleared that bar in reading, and 29.6 percent did in math.

The rest of the students in grades 3-8 now qualify for Academic Intervention Services: additional instruction, student support like counseling and study skills help, or both. The state is proposing that AIS only be required for students with raw scores below a threshold that, for most grades and subjects, is equivalent to last year’s passing mark. (You can compare 2013 scores and 2012 scores by percentile here.) Those shifts would keep the number of students requiring academic intervention relatively steady, which is what the Regents did in 2010 to keep AIS stable when cutoffs were adjusted.

An analysis by Dennis Atkinson, a data expert with the Western New York Regional Information Center, showed that districts in that part of the state would see their students eligible for AIS in reading jump about 3 percentage points and stay flat in math if the proposed cutoffs were adopted this year.

In the memo, Slentz said those adjustments would make sure services like AIS “remain relevant and appropriate.” But the changes also raise questions about the purpose of academic intervention, and a new scoring system, if the state is essentially converting to last year’s scale to determine who gets a boost.

“We certainly welcome the department for providing the flexibility for districts,” said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. “But there are superintendents who will say, ‘We have an obligation to provide the extra help to any students who are not meeting standards.’ Some also expect that they will have parents beating down the door to make sure their kids get more help.”

The state’s proposed cutoffs for AIS fall in the middle of this year’s level 2 range for most grades and subjects. The proposed score of 297 on a 100-425 scale for fifth grade reading, for example, would mean that all students who scored a level 1 and about a quarter of those who scored a level 2 would qualify for AIS this year.

But for a few tests, like fifth and seventh grade math, not even all of this year’s level 1 scorers will qualify for extra help.

Tomkins said it was short-sighted to think that means the state isn’t taking the new standards seriously. “It assumes that the only way ‘up’ from the baseline is remediation when in fact the only true way ‘up’ is through improved, Common Core-aligned instruction based on effective and specific feedback from observers and based on data from thoughtfully implemented assessments which are given throughout the year,” he said. “That said, educators are going to provide interventions to those kids who most need it.”

Slentz sent that message in his memo as well. “As you know, while remediation for students who are struggling the most is critical, implementation of the Common Core requires key shifts in classroom instruction,” he wrote.

The city has allocated $650 million in AIS funding to schools this year, according to DOE spokesperson Erin Hughes, and in anticipation of the more difficult tests allocated another $10 million for support for students who scored a level 1 but were not identified for summer school. “We are reviewing the State’s memo to determine the implications for AIS funding for future years and plan to release guidance in the coming months,” Hughes said.

Especially in middle schools, funds for AIS can make up a sizable chunk of a school’s budget. Principals use that money in a variety of ways: to pay for additional teachers who focus on core skills with smaller groups of students, before- or after-school programs, or additional counselors or social workers.

The immediate changes are up to the Board of Regents, which will vote on the emergency measure during its Sept. 16 meeting.