Data doubts

School discipline data mistakes have ripple effects for advocates battling the school-to-prison pipeline

PHOTO: ACLU of Southern California/Creative Commons

Faulty student discipline numbers for at least three Colorado school districts have muddied efforts to track suspension and expulsion trends, complicated advocates’ plans to press for change and caused state officials in one case to take the unusual step of correcting wrong data.

In early August, the advocacy group Padres & Jovenes Unidos, relying on numbers school districts provide to the state, reported surprising news: The rate of out-of-school suspensions in Colorado schools had shot up by 19 percent in the 2014-15 school year after years of decline.

However, three school districts portrayed as largely responsible for the spike all said their data were wrong, turning what had been a big jump in the suspension rate into a small one.

Getting school discipline data right is critical because advocacy groups campaigning to end the “school-to-prison pipeline” rely on the numbers to define the problem and push for changes in state law. Bad numbers can equal bad policy.

“We’re really, really invested in the accuracy of these numbers,” said Daniel Kim, director of youth organizing for Padres, which is widely known for its efforts to prevent harsh school discipline.

“These aren’t just numbers. These are students’ lives. These are the conditions they walk into every day at school. This is the environment of their school. That’s what these numbers reflect.”

Kim said the group plans to add a notation to its report, making clear that the data discrepancies could affect its findings.

The report attributed the 19 percent spike to big increases in the number of out-of-school suspensions in the Adams 12 Five Star, Colorado Springs 11 and Pueblo City 60 districts.

But shortly after the report’s release, Adams 12 came forward to dispute the findings. Officials said staff mistakes resulted in a report to the state that inflated its 2014-15 out-of-school suspension numbers by thousands and failed to include more than 100 expulsions.

After inquiries from Chalkbeat, Colorado Springs and Pueblo said their data was also wrong but in a different way. Out-of-school suspension numbers in both districts had been significantly under-reported to the state in 2013-14.

Taking into account numbers the districts say are correct, Chalkbeat calculated that the out-of-school suspension rate would have increased by just 2 percent in 2014-15. Similarly, the 7 percent suspension rate decline reported in Padres’ previous discipline report would have been around 1 percent had correct numbers been used for Colorado Springs and Pueblo.

National experts say inaccuracies in discipline data aren’t unique to Colorado and reflect growing pains in the push to elevate school discipline to the same high-profile status as academic achievement.

“This sloppiness wouldn’t be tolerated if it was test scores,” said Daniel Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“The more people start looking at school discipline…the more accurate the reporting will get.”

Already, he said, the spotlight on school climate and harsh discipline tactics is brighter because of new provisions in the recently reauthorized federal education law.

There’s also been a growing recognition that suspension and expulsion disproportionately affect students of color and can have devastating lifelong consequences—increasing the risk that kids will drop out and end up incarcerated.

Losen doesn’t blame advocacy groups like Padres for discipline data errors.

“It falls on the district,” he said. “This is the information age. There are so many ways in which we are good at tracking information about people and their experiences….It’s a little discouraging that schools are so slow in this regard.”

Genesis of a problem

Months before the Padres report came out, there were whispers among some of Colorado’s education insiders about sketchy discipline data.

The Colorado Children’s Campaign, spearheading an effort to reduce suspension and expulsion among young children, asked the state for data on suspension rates in kindergarten through third grade. The numbers that came back showed that Colorado’s public schools had suspended 7,433 students in those grades during 2014-15—with black and Latino children disproportionately affected.

When the Children’s Campaign circulated the aggregate data among key education groups, a few school district lobbyists and officials challenged its accuracy.

“We got a lot of, ‘Can this be right?’ sort of stuff,” said Bill Jaeger, vice president of early childhood initiatives and interim president at the Children’s Campaign.

Jaeger said that while discrepancies in one or two districts probably wouldn’t have affected the big-picture findings, concern about accuracy was one reason the group didn’t publish the numbers on its website or in its signature “Kids Count” report.

“The data question is something we want to get right absolutely,” Jaeger said.

The Children’s Campaign and other advocacy groups had hoped to see legislation on early childhood discipline during the 2016 session, but it never happened.

“There were a lot of folks who didn’t want to come to the table for a variety of reasons,” said Rep. Susan Lontine, D-Denver, who’s been actively involved in discussions on early childhood discipline.

“Some of it was they didn’t think the data was accurate, but there were other reasons, as well.”

Some of those reasons include disagreement about the best way to handle early childhood suspensions and expulsions in Colorado and the fact that preschool discipline data isn’t currently available from any state agency—leaving a big gap in what advocates know about the problem.

Why so much trouble with the data?

The school districts with problematic data cite various reasons, from self-inflicted “uploading errors” to state-level “coding changes.”

In Adams 12, officials submitted the incorrect data to the state in the summer of 2015. Eight months later—around the time the Children’s Campaign was passing around its K-3 data—officials there realized they’d made two major mistakes.

Not only had they reported nearly 9,000 out-of-school suspensions for 2014-15 instead of the actual 3,585, they’d reported expelling no students, when 121 had received that punishment.

They’d managed to look both better and worse than they actually were.

In an attempt to determine the extent of the data reporting problems, Chalkbeat contacted nine other districts, including four others singled out for having big increases in out-of-school suspensions, and the state’s five largest districts, four of which reported suspension declines.

Jeffco, Aurora, Douglas County, Cherry Creek, Greeley-Evans and Harrison said their numbers were correct. Denver didn’t confirm either way. Pueblo and Colorado Springs said they also spotted errors in the numbers that were sent to the state.

Those errors, along with the over-reporting error in Adams 12, made all three districts appear to have far larger year-over-year suspension increases than they really did.

Pueblo 60 spokesman Dalton Sprouse said administrators hadn’t gone back and looked at the erroneous discipline data until Chalkbeat asked about it. He said he’s not sure how the mistake, which resulted in a report of 1,161 suspensions instead of 2,264, occurred.

Colorado Springs 11 spokeswoman Devra Ashby attributed the mistake to a coding change at the state level. She said that in 2013-14, the district was asked to submit the total number of students suspended, not the total number of suspensions, which led to students with multiple suspensions only being counted once. As a result, the district reported 905 suspensions instead of more than 3,200. The next year, Ashby said, the district was asked to submit more detailed data.

But Jeremy Meyer, spokesman for the Colorado Department of Education, said the state has always asked districts to submit the same data year after year.

Of the three districts that cited problems with their discipline numbers, only Adams 12 asked the state to correct the data. This was in February, eight months after the data was first submitted.

The state initially refused, saying it was too late for corrections.

But last week, it reversed course. Meyer said fixes will be made to Adams 12’s numbers on the department’s website and reports submitted to the federal government.

Meyer said the decision represents a rare exception and doesn’t signify a change to the department’s policy not correct mistakes after districts officially submit their data.

That’s largely because the correction process is laborious—requiring a series of time-consuming steps at both the district and state level. Meyer said state officials decided to make the change for Adams 12 partly because the discrepancy was so large.

That doesn’t mean the changes will appear on every website or in every publication that published the original numbers.

“There’s a point when you release this information when it takes on a life of its own and it’s difficult to reel it back in,” Meyer said. “We don’t know who’s using it in what report.”

another path

‘They’re my second family.’ Largest Pathways to Graduation class earn their diplomas

Jasmine Byrd receives an award for excellence after giving a speech to her fellow graduates.

Before last fall, Jasmine Byrd never envisioned herself striding across the stage to receive a diploma at a graduation ceremony.

But then Byrd moved to the Bronx from Utah and entered New York City’s Pathways to Graduation program, which helps 17- to 21-year-olds who didn’t graduate from a traditional high school earn a high school equivalency diploma by giving them free resources and support.

Just walking into this space and being like, this is what you’ve accomplished and this is what you’ve worked hard for, is a great feeling,” said Byrd, who also credits the program with helping her snag a web development internship. “I’ve built my New York experience with this program. They’re my second family, sometimes my first when I needed anything.”

Byrd is one of about 1,700 students to graduate during the 2017-18 school year from Pathways, the program’s largest graduating class to date, according to officials.  

This year, students from 102 countries and 41 states graduated from Pathways, which is part of District 79, the education department district overseeing programs for older students who have had interrupted schooling.

The program also saw the most students ever participate in its graduation ceremony, a joyful celebration held this year at the Bronx United Palace Theater. According to Robert Evans, a math teacher at one of the program’s five boroughwide sites and emcee of the graduation, about 600 students typically show up to walk the stage. But students can be a part of the ceremony even if they received their passing test results that morning, and this year more than 800 graduates attended.

There were still students coming in last night to take photos and to pick up their sashes and gowns,” said Evans.

The graduation ceremony is unique in part because the program is. Students who have not completed high school attend classes to prepare to take the high school equivalency exam. But the program also prepares students to apply for college, attend vocational school, or enter the workforce by providing help applying for colleges, creating resumes, and other coaching.

To make sure that the program is accessible to all students, there’s a main site in every borough and 92 satellite sites, located in community centers and youth homeless shelters like Covenant House. Students who want to work in the medical field, like Genesis Rocio Rodriguez, can take their courses in hospitals. Rodriguez, who graduated in December, is now enrolled in the Borough of Manhattan Community College, and passing the exam meant being one step closer to her dream of becoming a nurse.

When I got my results I was with my classmate, and to be honest I thought I failed because I was so nervous during it. But then I went online, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh I did it!’ My mom started crying and everything.”

Byrd said the program worked for her because of the supportive teachers and extra resources.

“The teachers are relatable,” said Byrd. “They don’t put on an act, they don’t try to separate the person from the teacher. They really reach out, even call you to get you out of bed in the morning.”

Carmine Guirland said the supportive environment of social workers, guidance counselors, and teachers is what attracts him to the work at Bronx NeOn, a site where students who are on probation or who are involved with the court system can prepare for the exam, college, and careers.

When students are on parole they will have really involved [parole officers] who would text me at the beginning of class to check in so that we could work together,” said Guirland. “It’s really about that village thing. The more support systems that are available the more success the students will have.”

Reflecting on his experiences with the graduating class, Guirland’s most treasured memory was when one of his students proposed to his girlfriend in a guidance counseling session. Even though they aren’t together anymore, the moment was a reflection of the relationships that many of the students build during their time at Pathways to Graduation.

“It’s this amazing high moment where this student felt like the most comfortable place for him to propose to his girlfriend and the mother of his child was in our advisory circle,” said Guirland.

New Standards

Tennessee updates science standards for first time in 10 years. New guidelines stress class discussion, inquiry

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Fourth grade science teachers Lamarcus Marks, of Rivercrest Elementary, and Angie Clement, of Bartlett Elementary, test out a lesson on kinetic and potential energy at Arlington High School, one of 11 statewide sites where Tennessee teachers are training for next year's new science standards.

How can a wolf change the river? Why doesn’t a cactus have leaves? Why can’t you exterminate bats in Tennessee?

With new state science standards coming to classrooms next fall, these are the kinds of questions students will explore in their science classes. They’ll be tasked not only with memorizing the answers, but also with asking questions of their own, engaging on the topic with their teacher and classmates, and applying what they learn across disciplines. That’s because the changes set forth are as much about teaching process, as they are about teaching content.

“At the lowest level, I could just teach you facts,” said Detra Clark, who is one of about 300 Tennessee educators leading teacher trainings on the new standards to her peers from across the state. “Now it’s like, ‘I want you to figure out why or how you can use the facts to figure out a problem.’”

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Detra Clark, a science coach in Shelby County’s iZone, demonstrates a sample lesson for sixth grade science teachers.

On Wednesday, Clark — a science coach for the iZone, a group of underperforming schools that Shelby County Schools is looking to turn around — unpacked for her peers, who gathered at Arlington High School, a key component of the new material: three-dimensional modeling. Under three-dimensional modeling, students should be able to do something with the content they learn, not just memorize it.

In recent years, Tennessee students have performed better on state science tests than on their math and English exams. But state science standards for grades K–12 haven’t been updated since 2008. By contrast, math and English benchmarks have undergone more recent changes. To give the stakeholders time to adjust, results from next year’s science test, the first to incorporate the new standards, won’t count for students, teachers, or schools.

At the training session, Clark, standing before a room of sixth-grade science teachers, held up a chart with the names of woodland animals, such as elk and deer. Under each name, she tracked the population over time.

“At our starting population, what do we see?” she asked.

“The deer, it decreases again because it’s introduced to a predator,” a teacher responded.

“More resources, more surviving animals” another teacher chimed in.

“How can we explain what happened in year two, when we’re dealing with students?” Clark asked the group.

“The population went up,” a teacher said.

“They start to reproduce!” another teacher interjected.

Clark nodded.

In another classroom, this one composed of kindergarten teachers, Bridget Davis — a K-2 instructional advisor for Shelby County Schools — clicked through a video of fuzzy critters, each paired with a close relative, such as two different breeds of dogs.

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
In a teacher training session on Wednesday, kindergarten teachers highlight the three dimensions of three-dimensional modeling, a key part of new state science standards.

She encouraged the teachers to ask their students what traits the animals shared.

“The first thing they’re going to say is, ‘Well, one’s big and one’s small,” she said. “What we really want them to say is, ‘Well, their fur is the same color,’ or, ‘Mom has a patch of black hair here and the baby doesn’t.’ We want them to look at detail.”

She added, “We want them to get used to being a detective.”

The science standards that have been in place for the past decade fulfills the first dimension of three-dimensional modeling.

Doing something with that knowledge satisfies the second dimension, and the third dimension requires teachers to apply to their lessons a “cross-cutting concept” — strategies that students can apply to any subject, like identifying patterns or sequences.

Under the existing standards, a student may not have been introduced to physical science until the third grade. But starting next year, Tennessee schoolchildren will learn about life science, physical science, earth and space science, and engineering applications, beginning in kindergarten and continuing through high school.

“I do believe that this is the best our standards have ever been, because of the fact that they are so much more detailed than they have been in the past,” Davis said.

About a thousand Shelby County teachers made their way to trainings this week, which were free and open to all educators. Several administrators also met to discuss ways they can ensure the new standards are implemented in their schools.

As with anything new, Jay Jennings — an assistant principal at a Tipton county middle school and an instructor at Wednesday’s training — expects some pushback. But he’s optimistic that his district will have every teacher at benchmark by the end of the 2018–2019 school year.

“We talked before about teachers knowing content, and that’s important,” he said. “But what we want to see is kids knowing content and questioning content. We want to see them involved.”

He reminded other school leaders about last year’s changes to English and math standards, a transition that he said was challenging but smoother than expected.  

“Teachers are going to go out of their comfort zone,” he explained. “But it’s not changing what a lot of them are already doing.”