Future of Schools

Rejecting Ritz's logic, state board promises A-to-F grades will be issued

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
State Superintendent Glenda Ritz speaks with reporters after Indiana's request for a waiver from some rules of the federal No Child Left Behind law was approved in 2014.

Indiana schools will have A-to-F grades for 2014-15, although they probably won’t be publicly released until 2016.

The Indiana State Board of Education today approved a resolution that orders state Superintendent Glenda Ritz to issue school A-to-F grades for 2014-15 despite earlier questions raised by Ritz about whether the board’s earlier actions caused the rules for calculating those grades to expire.

That could have meant the Indiana Department of Education would have no formal guidelines for assigning grades. But the state board rejected Ritz’s argument and insisted last year’s rules are still in effect.

“This has been a very confusing process with the rules expiring, the emergency rules,” Ritz said. “I just want to say I’m glad we’re headed to the new rules and the new measures and the new metrics, and we’re moving as fast as we can toward that.”

Education department spokesman Daniel Altman said the tentative date for final grades being submitted to the state board for approval is Jan. 18. Typically, grades are finalized well before year’s end, but the company that makes ISTEP, California-based CTB, reported scoring problems last month that have caused the delay. Schools are expected to get preliminary score data by Dec. 1.

“Obviously we’re dealing with the delay from CTB,” Altman said. “We’ve been working significantly with state board staff and legislative staff and stakeholders to get the timeline as reduced as it could be, and we’re going to get information to schools as soon as it’s possible.”

A letter from Rep. Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville, expressed concern that grades wouldn’t be issued before the state’s Jan. 31 deadline for when districts must give performance bonuses to teachers. Brown chairs the budget making Ways and Means Committee in the Indiana House. If that bonus money is not used by then, state board spokesman Marc Lotter said, it could go back to the education department rather than be paid to teachers.

The board voted 9-0 to approve the resolution to issue the grades, with Ritz abstaining. When asked by board member Gordon Hendry why she chose not to vote, Ritz cited the confusion about the rules.

“I choose to, I guess, because of the confusing nature of the entire piece and the resolution enacting a rule that is expired,” she said. “It’s probably more procedural than anything.”

Lotter said 2014-15 grades would be determined using the same system as in 2013-14. A new model for figuring out school grades will equally weigh student scores and improvement over prior years. It will be used for the first time for 2015-16 grades.

An A-to-F grade delay can cause schools a variety of problems, as the scores are used in part to determine teacher raises, as well as guide the state board to decide if it needs to take over schools with repeated F-grades.

Ritz’s team argued earlier this month that the state board’s actions last year to change the way they issued grades for a handful of schools with unusual grade configurations — such as those with some elementary grades and some high school grades — had a secondary effect of invalidating the entire A-to-F system.

The rules, they said, indicate even a small change means there is a new system, and that the old system no longer is in effect.

The Indiana attorney general’s office said in a letter to the board and the department that an expiring emergency rule would not invalidate A-to-F grades and doesn’t negate state law that requires grades to be issued each year.

A legal opinion from Matt Light, with the state’s attorney general’s office, also blocks another proposal Ritz has made. She has suggested A-to-F school grades be “paused” for 2014-15. Ritz proposed grades only be changed and made public if they were better than those from 2014. If scores went down, she said, grades should stay the same.

Pausing grades is “inconsistent with statutory requirements and provisions relating to placement of schools in A-F categories for school performance and accountability,” Light wrote.

Ritz and her team have tried to persuade the state board to “pause” accountability and school grades several times. Recently, those arguments have been spurred on by difficulties schools have had as they quickly implement new academic standards and give new tests after Indiana dumped Common Core standards in 2014.

Light wrote that while it might be valid to argue that new standards and new tests had an effect on accountability, it doesn’t mean that withholding grades is the best option. Plus, he wrote, there’s no evidence that the 2015 ISTEP test isn’t valid or reliable.

“There is always a difficult balance to be struck between the need to establish the validity and reliability of the test items against the burden of time needed to test the items,” his letter said.

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.