Future of Schools

State panel recommends changes on A to F grades for schools

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

A panel of educators, policymakers and business leaders recommended Wednesday that Indiana change how it evaluates school test score growth in a way that might result in fewer A grades, but also fewer D’s and F’s.

The recommendations came from a 17-member committee appointed by State Superintendent Glenda Ritz, Gov. Mike Pence and legislative leaders. The group’s proposal, which will be considered by the Indiana State Board of Education on Oct. 15, likely wouldn’t go into effect before 2016.

Under the plan, student test score growth would be gauged by looking at how students ranked compared to their peers on past tests to establish a baseline. Then students would be expected to improve their scores each year.

“We had to have a starting point,” Ritz said. “We used all that information to determine the baseline of where the new model will begin.”

But the proposal, which passed the committee 10-4, drew objections from a few dissenters who felt growth should instead be measured against the passing score rather than peer scores. In that scenario, students who had not passed could earn bonus points based on how much growth they made toward a passing score. Those who passed could get bonuses for how much they exceeded the passing score.

“Where is the measure of proficiency in the growth model?” said Indiana Chamber of Commerce Vice President Derek Redelman, a committee member who voted against the proposal. “It’s not there.”

Claire Fiddian-Green, co-director of Pence’s Center for Education and Career Innovation, said that method proved to offer little reward for growth because schools that scored well tended on that sort of growth also tended to have high passing rates. The proposed method, she said, was a better measure of growth.

Still, Fiddian-Green voted against the plan for other reasons: she wanted an outside review of the system first and more specifics for how student scores would be judged over time.

Under the current rules, where test score growth is treated as a bonus, about 44 percent of schools were rated A last year while 18 percent were D or F. Under the proposal, which rewards schools equally for the percent who passed ISTEP and for the percent who earned growth bonuses, the Indiana Department of Education estimated 33 percent of schools would have earned an A last year while 7 percent would have received a D or F.

Before 2012, Indiana’s grading system was heavily based on the percent of students who passed. Critics said that unfairly hurt schools with large numbers of children who came to them far below grade level, often because of high poverty and fewer learning opportunities available before kindergarten or first grade.

Even when those schools got kids to make major gains on tests they sometimes still fell short of earning a passing score. By ignoring growth, some schools that were making great strides earned the same grades as schools where few kids were making much test progress.

So then-Superintendent Tony Bennett worked to revise the A to F system to add a growth measure to give schools extra credit when students made gains on state tests, even if they were far above or far below a passing score.

But Bennett’s system was almost universally disliked. When hearings were held in 2012 after he proposed it, a parade of speakers from across the political and educational spectrum testified against Bennett’s plan.

The major complaints surrounded the use of a growth measure that was based on a similar model used in Colorado. It judged student growth by comparing each student with peers that met a similar demographic profile. Some opponents argued the measure was so difficult to understand schools could not even calculate their own scores. Others argued it was an unreliable gauge of student academic improvement.

Last year, lawmakers ordered an overhaul of the growth measure so it rewards growth toward a standard, such as a passing score or advanced score, instead of growth as compared to other students. The A to F panel is one of the legislatively-ordered steps to a new system.

If the state board gives its blessing, that would start a year-long process of formal rule-making, including public input on the plan, before it could be put into practice.

awards season

For the first time in two decades, New York’s Teacher of the Year hails from New York City — and West Africa

PHOTO: New York State Education Department
Bronx International High School teacher Alhassan Susso, center, is New York State's 2019 Teacher of the Year.

An immigrant from West Africa who teaches social studies to immigrant students in the Bronx is New York State’s newest Teacher of the Year.

Alhassan Susso, who works at International Community High School in Mott Haven, received the award Tuesday, becoming the first New York City teacher to do so since 1998.

As the state’s Teacher of the Year, Susso will travel the state to work with local educators — and will represent New York in the national competition at a time when federal authorities are aggressively seeking to limit immigration.

A decorated teacher with significant vision impairment since childhood, Susso came to New York from Gambia at 16 and had a rocky experience at his upstate high school, which he chronicled in an autobiography he published in 2016. Assuming that he would struggle academically because he was an immigrant, even though English is the official language of Gambia, his teachers assigned him to a remedial reading class. There, he found a compassionate teacher who was attentive to the diverse needs of her students, who came from all over the world.

Now, Susso is playing that role at his school. International Community High School, part of the Internationals Network for new immigrants, has a special program for students who did not receive a formal education before coming to the United States.

“Alhassan Susso exemplifies the dedication and passion of our 79,000 New York City teachers,” city Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza said in a statement. “Using the obstacles he’s overcome and lessons he’s learned in his own life, Alhassan has changed the trajectory of students’ lives and helped them pursue their dreams.”

New York City teachers make up nearly 40 percent of the state’s teaching force but have won the Teacher of the Year honor only six times since 1965, the last in 1998. This year’s winner had a strong chance of ending the two-decade shutout: Two of the three finalists teach in the Bronx. In addition to Susso, Frederick Douglass Academy III chemistry teacher William Green was up for the award.

regents roundup

Regents support a new way of evaluating charter schools and soften penalties for schools with high opt-out rates

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Betty Rosa, center, at a recent Board of Regents meeting.

New York’s top education policymakers tentatively approved new rules Monday on two hot-button issues: the penalties for districts and schools where many students opt out of state tests — and how nearly 100 charter schools across the state will be evaluated.

Here’s what you need to know about the new policies that the state’s Board of Regents set in motion.

Potential penalties for high opt-out rates were softened

After criticism from activists and parents within the opt-out movement and pushback from the state teachers union, the Regents walked back some of the consequences schools and districts can face when students refuse to take state exams.

Among the most significant changes, which state officials first floated last week, is that districts with high opt-out rates will not be required to use a portion of their federal funding to increase their testing rates.

“I do not ever want to be the person who takes money away from children,” State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said.

The regulations are part of the state’s plan under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act and stem from a federal mandate that 95 percent of students take the state’s annual reading and math exams.

The Regents tweaked other rules requiring schools to create improvement plans if they fall below the 95 percent threshold. Schools with average or higher test scores will not have to come up with those plans.

Still, some parents who support the opt-out movement and who attended Monday’s meeting said the changes don’t go far enough and that schools with lower test scores should also be exempt from coming up with plans to boost participation rates.

“There’s still so much left to be addressed,” said Kemala Karmen, a New York City public school parent who attended the meeting.

The new regulations will likely not have a major effect in New York City, where opt-out rates have remained relatively low. Although New York State has been the epicenter of the test-boycott movement — with roughly one in five students refusing to take the tests, according to the most recent data — less than 4 percent of the city’s students declined to take them.

The Regents unanimously approved the changes, although their vote is technically preliminary. The tweaks will still be subject to a 30-day public comment period and will likely be brought to a final vote in December.

New criteria for evaluating charter schools

The Regents also narrowly approved a new framework for evaluating the roughly 100 charter schools that the board oversees across the state, 63 of which are in New York City.

The new framework is meant to bring charter schools in line with how the state judges district-run schools. Under the new federal education law, the Regents have moved away from emphasizing test scores as the key indicator of a school’s success.

In keeping with that shift, the new charter framework will require schools to have policies covering chronic absenteeism, out-of-school suspension rates, and other measures of school culture to help decide whether they are successful enough to remain open.

And while the new framework does not spell out specific rates of chronic absenteeism a school must fall below, for example, it does explicitly add those policies to the mix of factors the Regents consider. (Officials said that test scores and graduation rates would still remain among the most important factors in evaluating charter schools.)

At Monday’s meeting, discussion of the charter framework prompted broad complaints about the charter sector from some Regents. The state’s framework for evaluating charters was last updated in 2015; the board has added several new members and a new chancellor since then.

The current board has repeatedly sent mixed messages about the sector, approving large batches of new charters while also rejecting others and raising questions about whether the schools serve a fair share of high-need students.

“We’re giving money away from our public schools to charters,” Regent Kathy Cashin said, emphasizing that she believes the state should more deeply probe when students leave charter schools and survey families to find out why.

Charters receive some freedom from rules governing most district-run schools, but in exchange the schools are expected to meet certain performance benchmarks or else face closure.

State officials said the new framework does not include new standards for how New York judges enrollment and retention. Under the current rules, schools must enroll a similar number of students with disabilities, English learners, and low-income students as other nearby district schools. If they don’t, they must show that they’re making progress toward that goal.

Ultimately, the new framework was approved eight to five in a preliminary vote and will be brought back to the full board for approval on Tuesday.