Gradebooks

Three Chicago principals and the war against Fs

If you’re a principal intent on disruption, here’s one place to start: Ban Fs.

“Fs and Ds are worthless,” Principal Juan Carlos Ocon told a group of rapt educators Thursday. The principal of Benito Juarez Community Academy in the predominantly Latino neighborhood of Pilsen spoke as part of a panel on improving student performance at a conference hosted by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research.

The event took place during a daylong look at the consortium’s latest round of pivotal research, which draws a clear line from ninth grade performance to high school graduation.

Conferees discussed the latest data showing freshman GPAs in core classes — such as reading, math, and science — dropping a third of a point from their eighth-grade GPAs. One key finding: Failure in non-core classes, like PE, far exceeds similar eighth- grade numbers. But researchers didn’t uncover why as many Chicago freshmen fail PE as science. (Read more here.)

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke / Chalkbeat
Sarah Duncan, left, of the Network for College Success, moderates a panel on grades at a conference Oct. 11, on findings of the To & Through Project. Also appearing on the panel at the University of Chicago are Juan Carlos Ocon, Chad Adams, and Wayne Bevis.

Joined on the panel by fellow principals Chad Adams of Roger C. Sullivan High School in Rogers Park on the North Side and Wayne Bevis of Robert Lindblom Math and Science Academy, a test-in school in West Englewood, Ocon said he took a hard position to “ban Fs from kids’ lives.”

“It actually increases rigor,” he said, explaining how the mindset of his school has shifted from punitive deadlines to encouraging learning at a student’s pace. Any high schooler who isn’t proficient in a subject by June must keep going to class until the light bulb glows, Ocon said. “Our classes do not end in June when classes end in traditional high schools — our classes extend through second week of August.”

Panelists Adams and Bevis are also “blowing up” the idea of Fs. At Adams’ school, located in an immigrant-rich neighborhood and inside which 40 some languages are spoken, Fs aren’t quite verboten — but, every five weeks, teachers have to come clean with how many Fs they give.

“Teachers didn’t like it as first, but then they started to hold each other accountable,” Adams said. I have the same kids (as you do) in your class, but, look, I gave 4 Fs versus your 54. What are you doing?”

Bevis has done away with As through Fs entirely and moved to a numeric grading system that runs 1 to 4. He’s also implemented a buildingwide revision policy, which can be controversial at some schools. After receiving a grade, students have at least two weeks to resubmit revised work and show they have improved their skills. “Some teachers go longer than two weeks, up to a semester,” he said.

Though located in very different areas of the city, each school has seen significant gains in student performance, with consistent, year-over-year rises in graduation rates and “freshman on track” percentages — that is, the percentage of freshmen who are on track to graduate as measured at the end of ninth grade, a metric developed by the University of Chicago and a key measure of success in Chicago.

The principals used the panel session to share other practices they see improving performance in their schools.

At Lindblom, for example, a revolving weekly “colloquium class” offers students extra help in a particular subject. Students must submit requests by Monday night, and with input from teachers a computer spits out their assigned special class, which can change week-to-week. “There’s a consistent understanding among teachers and students that we need to target which skills they struggle with,” Bevis said.

At Juarez, teachers spent the past year studying and recommending a set of core developmental competencies, a list that includes perseverance and relationship skills. Daily lessons are built in during an advisory period, and the staff is on board since they helped create them, Ocon said.

Adams echoed the idea of building a high-performance culture starting with his teacher corps. He’s likewise building a set of core values to express what a Sullivan High School graduate represents. When it comes to creating a learning culture, staff buy-in is essential, he said. When it comes to change, “if the teachers aren’t ready, the kids won’t be ready.”

 

Miseducation

Promising students in Detroit lack access to high-level AP classes that are common in suburban schools

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Madinah Hart, second from right, is taking four AP courses at Renaissance High School this year because "it allows me to be more advanced when I get to college." Most Detroit high school students do not have access to AP classes.

This story is part of a partnership between Chalkbeat and the nonprofit investigative news organization ProPublica. Using federal data from Miseducation, an interactive database built by ProPublica, we are publishing a series of stories exploring inequities in education at the local level.

It was Spirit Week at Renaissance High School, and students in Adam Alster’s sixth-hour Advanced Placement physics class were dressed up as senior citizens and babies. But as Alster reviewed the finer points of velocity graphs, students took notes and asked questions without seeming to notice their classmates’ silly outfits. There was work to do.

Advanced Placement courses — known as APs — offer some of the most challenging curriculum available to high schoolers in the United States, so much so that many colleges offer credits worth thousands of dollars to students who can master the material. Students in this classroom were keenly aware that their work here would provide a springboard toward a college degree.

They were aware, too, that Renaissance is an island of opportunity in Detroit, where most high schoolers don’t have the same access to AP courses as their peers across the state.

“Some of my friends at other schools, they said, ‘We don’t have AP classes at all,’” said Cierra Cox, a senior who plans to study neuroscience in college. “I was like, ‘What, that’s crazy!’ You should have the right to be able to challenge yourself and see how far you can go with a given subject.”

But her friends are not outliers. About half of Detroit’s high schools, both district and charter, offered no AP classes in 2015-16, according to data that city schools reported to the federal government.

In Detroit schools that offered AP courses, only 10 percent of students were enrolled. That’s compared to neighboring Grosse Pointe, on the other side of one of the starkest socioeconomic borders in America, where 38 percent of high schoolers are enrolled in the higher-level courses.

The federal education data, newly compiled by ProPublica in an interactive database, sheds light on a stunning gap in the opportunities available to Michigan students depending on where they attend school.

While the data will come as no surprise to educators in Detroit, it makes clear the depth of the challenge they face as they attempt to expand AP access in the city.

“There is not equitable access,” said Zach Sweet, a former AP teacher at Renaissance who is now working with the city district on an ambitious plan to offer APs at all of its roughly two dozen high schools.

AP courses in academic subjects from physics to history to art offer curriculum so challenging that it’s considered on par with college coursework. Educators say by that offering AP courses — and preparing students to take them — schools are taking powerful steps to prepare students for higher learning.

However, years of financial challenges, relentless student turnover, and disappointing test scores in both district and charter schools have put APs out of reach for most schools in Detroit, where eight in 10 students are black and over half of all students are from low-income families.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Adam Alster reviews velocity graphs with his 6th-hour AP Physics class at Renaissance High School.

Schools in the city are already under extreme pressure to increase their lowest-in-the-nation test scores, making them less likely to focus on their top students, said Agustin Arbulu, director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.

“You’re really fighting to meet certain score levels that the state has set,” he said. “And when you look at scores, what do you look at? The median. So you put your dollars there.”

What’s more, AP courses take extra time and money, two things that have been in short supply in city schools that have spent much of the recent decades fending off one crisis after another.

College Board, the non-profit that certifies the rigor of AP courses and administers exams that measure whether students have mastered the material, estimates that it costs between $2,000 and $10,000 to start a new AP course, depending on the subject. Most of the money goes to up-front costs like textbooks and scientific equipment, while some pays to train teachers who are new to the advanced curriculum.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, who assumed control of the city’s main district last year, has sought to expand access to higher-level courses like APs. And Renaissance is serving as a de facto campaign headquarters.

With more than one in five of its students enrolled in at least one AP class in 2015-16, it was already beating the state average for AP access, but its AP program is growing quickly. Over the last year, it added an AP computer science course, and the number of AP exams passed by Renaissance students increased from 52 to 118.

At the same time, Renaissance students took but did not pass many more exams, mirroring national trends. Across the country, more black and Hispanic students are taking AP courses and exams every year, but many of them don’t earn passing scores. That means they’re not getting the financial or placement benefits that AP exams could confer, and research is inconclusive about whether their participation has benefits at all.

Kahlid Ali, who took several AP courses at Renaissance before graduating in June, said he benefited from the AP push. Ali, 18, is a standout student: Though just a freshman at Wayne State University, he’s already guaranteed admission into the university’s medical school through a scholarship program.

But it’s not the three AP tests he passed that are helping him most in his transition to college: It’s the one he failed.

Even as he admits that he didn’t study hard enough for the AP Chemistry exam his junior year, Ali says the concepts he learned are giving him a leg up.

“Although I didn’t do well on the test, I learned the lessons,” he said. “To be in college without any APs, you’d really be at a disadvantage.”

His experience is why leaders in the Detroit Public Schools Community District are hoping to spread the strategies that increased AP course access at Renaissance. They’ve asked Sweet to leave his classroom at Renaissance and help train educators to teach higher-level courses and recruit students to take them.

The challenge ahead is sweeping, according to Sweet. “What it would take for this to be successful in DPSCD is a far greater support system, if teachers had great professional development and mentors they could work with regularly,” he said.

For two years, teachers at Renaissance have received regular trainings on AP through a grant from the National Math and Science Initiative, a nonprofit that is also supporting AP programs at two other district schools. The district is also working on a broader plan to increase AP enrollment.

Kevin Smith, a teacher at Renaissance, said AP programs can’t be expanded without extra support for teachers. “I had to start thinking on a different level,” he said of his first year teaching AP Economics.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Kevin Smith, an AP Economics teacher at Renaissance High School, said teaching the higher-level courses is more challenging.

Once teachers are trained to offer higher-level courses, Sweet is confident that the district can convince students to sign up. Soon, students will begin hearing this message from their peers. Sweet won a $2,000 grant to send his former students to schools across the district to evangelize about AP courses.

Alster, Renaissance’s AP physics teacher, says the number of students taking the AP course and passing the test has “dramatically increased,” an improvement he credits in part to improved salesmanship.

“We’ve been stressing the importance of AP, and how valuable it is,” he said. “Over the long run, this experience is going to pay off.”

A district-wide curriculum overhaul could help, too. A month into the school year, Alster says teachers in the science department at Renaissance are convinced that a new science curriculum being piloted this year at some schools is much stronger, and will produce juniors who are better prepared for AP-level work.

Sitting in a circle with economics textbooks on their laps, four juniors at Renaissance said higher-level courses should be available to every student in Detroit. Without challenging courses, they worried they wouldn’t be able to meet their life goals. Two wanted to be surgeons — orthopedic and cardiovascular — and all planned to apply to selective schools like Spelman College or the University of Michigan. Among them, they planned to take more than a dozen AP courses before graduation.

“I think it should be offered to everyone,” said Madinah Hart, of advanced coursework.

“It helps a lot,” said Natasha Rice.

Caitlyn Cutler agreed: “Everybody should get the opportunity to get that step ahead.”

held back

Holding middle-schoolers back causes dropout rates to spike, new research finds

PHOTO: Seth McConnell/The Denver Post
A student opens his locker between classes at Overland Trail Middle School on August 17, 2017, in Brighton, Colorado. (Photo by Seth McConnell/The Denver Post)

To hold back or not to hold back? For many policymakers in the early 2000s, the answer was clear: it was time to stop allowing struggling students to keep moving through school.

“It’s absolutely insidious to suggest that a functionally illiterate kid going from third grade, it’s OK to go to fourth. Really?” explained Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, where he curtailed the practice known as social promotion.

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg felt the same way. He introduced a policy of holding back low-performing students and fired appointees to the city’s school board who pushed back in 2004.

The idea was that the stricter standards would help students and schools alike. More time in school would give students the chance to catch up, allowing them to avoid the academic failure that could result from being continually promoted with big gaps in their skills. Thousands of additional students in Florida, New York, and across the country were held back in line with that theory.

Now, enough time has passed to see what happened to some of those students years later — and two recent studies reach a decidedly dire conclusion.

Being held back a grade in middle school, researchers found, substantially increased the chance that students dropped out of high school. In Louisiana, being retained in either fourth or eighth grade increased dropout rates by nearly 5 points. In New York City, the spike was startling: dropout rates were 10 points higher than similar students who weren’t held back.

A policy meant to make sure students stay on track, then, appears to have caused more students to leave school altogether.

“The takeaway from this would be that, at a minimum, we should be retaining fewer middle school students,” said Paco Martorell, a professor at the University of California – Davis who studied the New York City policy.

“If we’re talking about a middle school policy, I would strongly suggest against that at this point,” said Marcus Winters, a professor at Boston University who studied the effects in Florida.

Whether retention ultimately helps or harms students remains a crucial question. Though some places have relaxed their policies, others are adopting stricter rules. Michigan’s new retention law, for one, threatens to ensnare the vast majority of Detroit’s third graders.

The research also offer some better news, including out of Florida. Holding back students when they are younger doesn’t have such clear negative effects. And summer school, which often goes along with retention, can help students, potentially outweighing the downsides of retention policies.

Here’s what else the new research tells us.

Retention seems to increase drop-out rates.

The latest studies focus on Louisiana, New York City, and Florida. Each compares similar students, some who just barely earned a passing score on a test and others who just missed the cut-off, allowing researchers to zero in on the effects of being held back.

In New York City, the grade retention policy initially seemed promising. A 2013 analysis showed that retained students scored higher on state tests when they eventually reached the next grade.

The latest study, released earlier this year by RAND, looks at the long-run effects for those students held back between 2004 and 2012 and paints a starkly different picture. Students who were held back in middle school were much more likely to drop out of high school than the students who also went to summer school but who moved to the next grade on schedule.

There were no clear effects for students held back in elementary school, according to that recent RAND study. (An older Chicago paper found something similar: retaining eighth-graders increased future dropout rates, but retaining sixth-graders had no clear effects.)

In Louisiana, the recent research found that retention increased high school dropout rates for fourth or eighth graders who were held back between 1999 and 2005.

The rules around retention vary widely. In most cases, students are held back after they fail to pass a test, sometimes after summer help. In Florida, policymakers focused their policy on third grade, but other places, like New York City, introduced strict holdover policies in a number of grades.

There’s also lots of variation in just how often students are held back. Nationally, about 2 percent of students are retained each year, a number that has held steady or modestly declined since the mid-1990s.

In New York City, only 1 percent of students were retained across a number of grades. But in Louisiana, about 7 percent of fourth-graders and 8 percent of eighth-graders were held back. When the policy was first introduced in Florida, around 13 percent of third-graders were kept back, a number that eventually fell to around 5 percent.

Helping students catch up over the summer is beneficial.

Another recent study offers better news: In Florida, retention of third-graders in the early 2000s had no effect on their high school graduation rates, and it actually improved students’ grades in high school. The study also found that retained students saw an immediate test-score bump, though that faded over time.

What explains the more positive results? It’s hard to know, because the Florida study looks at not just retention but a package of policies that went along with it, including summer school and assigning students in the repeated grade extra reading help.

The Louisiana paper may shed some light on this question. It was able to separate the consequences of being held back — which appear to be negative — from the consequences of going to summer school. Sending eighth graders to summer school decreased their chances of dropping out of school down the line and their likelihood of being convicted of a crime before their 18th birthday.

In other words, the different results suggest that being held back hurts students, but the summer support that goes along with it helps them.

Retention is costly, though perhaps less so than some think.

There’s another downside to holding students back: it’s expensive to pay to keep students in school for more time. It costs both the school system and the student, who potentially misses out on an extra year of earning as an adult.

“Being retained may not confer benefits that justify spending an additional year in the same grade,” the New York City researchers concluded. “This is especially true given our finding that retention entails significant financial costs.”

The New York City study finds that each retained student costs the system roughly an extra $2,600 — a large amount, though far less than annual per-student spending.

White students are more likely to avoid being held back.

The consequences of retention, good or bad, are disproportionately felt by some groups of kids.

For instance, in Louisiana 85 percent of retained students were black, even though black students represented less than half of students in the state’s public schools at the time. In New York City, black students were more than twice as likely to be retained as white students with similar test scores.

Nationally, black and Hispanic students are substantially more likely to be held back. Some of that can be tied to test scores, but other research shows that white, affluent families are particularly likely to circumvent policies around holding students back.

In Florida, children whose mothers did not hold a high school degree were 7 percentage points more likely to be retained compared to their peers with equal academic performance whose mothers were college educated, another study found. The students who moved ahead anyway often took advantage of exemptions, like portfolios created by teachers to demonstrate that students should move on to the next grade.

There’s still a lot we don’t know about the effects of retention.

Where does this new long-term research leave us?

Although retention itself may be harmful to students, the combination of retention and summer school in Florida and Louisiana was neutral or positive. One potential takeaway is that districts should maintain extra help for struggling students while scrapping retention.

But those policies are intimately connected in many places, so it’s not clear that you can pull out one part of the policy like a Jenga piece and have the rest of the apparatus remain intact. Indeed, new research by Winters, the Florida researcher, suggests that the threat of retention can cause students do better in school.

It might also spur changes across a school or community. That’s what is happening in Detroit, where the retention law has focused attention on young students’ reading. “We have to get involved now and do anything we can to get the proficiency level up for the second-graders,” as one Detroit principal told Chalkbeat in August.

Martorell, the Davis professor, says we still need more evidence to know whether there are hidden benefits to holding students back. But he warned that existing research indicates that some students are paying a price.

“Policymakers should think long and hard about whether these other effects that are not captured by these studies … are significant enough to incur monetary costs and potential negative effects on students,” he said.