First Person

Need for remediation can be spotted early, study finds

The Colorado departments of education and higher education jointly released a study recently showing students who need remediation or who were on track toward postsecondary readiness could have been identified by looking at student achievement results from as early as sixth grade.

In a first analysis that bridges student performance data from the K-12 system to higher education, the analysis looked at the remediation needs of 17,500 students who graduated from Colorado high schools in the spring of 2009 and who then entered Colorado postsecondary institutions in the fall of the same year. Most of these students attended Colorado middle schools in 2003 (sixth-grade: 15,079) and 2005 (eighth-grade: 15,979).

The authors of the research concluded that there was “a high degree” of agreement between sixth-grade student assessment results and the need for remediation in the first year of college. Remediation is the process colleges use to bring basic skills—such as in reading, writing and mathematics—up to college levels so students stay on track to complete standard degree requirements.

The report, “Shining A Light On Remediation,” concludes that the combination of results from the ACT, a college entrance exam, and 10th-grade CSAP (Colorado Student Assessment Program) “clearly identified most of the students who needed remediation” in their first year of postsecondary education.

“By examining assessment results from as early as the sixth-grade,” the report states, “it was also clear that if students were not proficient on the state assessment at that time they were very likely to require remediation later when they entered college.”

Use of data urged

The report urges use of the data to make adjustments for students who are behind.

“If middle schools were to use the state assessment data to identify low performers, they would better know which students would be very likely be postsecondary ready and which students would not. The assessment results could also be used to target the academic skills of struggling students early in middle school to focus on preparing them to be postsecondary ready,” the report states.

Dianne Lefly, director of research and evaluation at the Colorado Department of Education, said the analysis confirms the validity of CSAP and ACT as reliable indicators of student performance in college.

“We have known for a long time that ACT and CSAP results are highly correlated,” said Lefly. “This analysis confirms that those assessments are useful and can be used accordingly by educators.”

Co-authors of the report include Cheryl D. Lovell, chief academic officer for the Colorado Department of Higher Education, and Jo O’Brien, assistant commissioner, CDE.

Lefly noted the study would not have been possible without Senate Bill 08-212, the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids (or CAP4K).  Under that bill, CDE and the Colorado Department of Higher Education jointly developed and adopted a description of “postsecondary and workforce readiness” that defines the essential knowledge, skills and behaviors common to high school graduation, college entrance and workforce readiness.

Legislation paves way for more research

One core idea of the legislation was to create a seamless experience for students transitioning out of high school. To that end, the legislation directed postsecondary institutions to use the same state-assigned student identification number that’s used in the K-12 system as an alternate identifier to their own numbers, allowing for data to be shared.

“Colorado educators have never been in a position until now to examine how well the CSAP results are predictive of college remediation needs,” the report states.

In 2009, the Colorado Commission on Higher Education reported that 29.3 percent of students who enrolled in a postsecondary institution in Colorado for the first time required remediation in basic content areas of reading, writing and mathematics.  Students attending two-year institutions needed considerably more remediation (52.7 percent) than did students attending four-year schools (19.9 percent).

The report analyzes results from what’s known as the ACT for Colorado – which all high school juniors complete under the state’s assessment system.  The report also follows students who scored proficient or above – and those below proficiency – on the 2003 sixth-grade CSAP.  In reading, for instance, there were 1,199 students as sixth-graders who applied and were accepted six years later to two-year institutions of higher education and who also required remediation. Of those students, 66.3 percent (795 students) scored below proficiency in sixth-grade reading while 33.7 percent (404 students) did not.

Looking at the same group of sixth-graders who were bound for two-year institutions but those who did not require remediation, 14.7 percent (330 students) scored below proficiency on CSAP while 85.3 percent (1,913 students) scored at proficiency or above.

A similar trend was apparent for the sixth-grade students who took CSAP in sixth-grade and were bound for a four-year institution. Here, students who ended up needing remediation in college were drawn almost equally from those who scored below proficiency (47.8 percent) and those proficient or above (52.2 percent) but 93.7 percent of students (10,431 in all) who needed no remediation also scored at proficient or above on the sixth-grade reading assessment.

The report also analyzes similar results for mathematics and across various subgroups by gender, ethnicity, among English learners and non-English learners and among students with disabilities and those with no disabilities.

Want to know about the remediation rates at your child’s high school or district? Click on this searchable database.

First Person

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on, where this post first appeared.

First Person

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.