high stakes

Newark’s rush to create new magnet-school admissions test is raising eyebrows. Here’s what you need to know.

PHOTO: Chalkbeat/Patrick Wall
Newark is creating a new admissions test for its popular magnet schools.

In Newark, a new high-stakes exam that every eighth-grader will take next month is raising questions — and not the multiple-choice kind.

The district has been rushing to complete the test, which the superintendent revealed at a parent conference in December, so that students can take it next month. It will determine, along with other factors, which students are admitted to the city’s coveted magnet schools in the fall.

The implications for students’ futures are huge: Students who attend magnets are far more likely than their peers in traditional high schools to graduate and earn college degrees. Yet officials have said little publicly about who’s developing the test, how schools will use it, or even why it’s necessary.

“Why make kids take an additional test unless there’s a very good reason for it,” said Jonathan Taylor, a research analyst at Hunter College in New York City who has studied that city’s controversial high-school entrance exam. “They already have to take enough of these tests.”

The exam appears to be aimed at making Newark’s magnet schools more selective, based on Superintendent Roger León’s belief that they have been admitting some students who are under-qualified or insufficiently interested in the schools’ themes.

“The whole concept that anyone and everyone can get into the magnet high schools — that’s not why they were designed,” León said last month. “You actually have to qualify to get into those schools.”

But the data show that Newark’s six magnet schools already enroll the city’s highest-achieving students (based on state test scores), and very few students who are still learning English or have disabilities, who tend to perform less well on standardized tests. León’s move comes as New Jersey’s governor tries to cut back on high-stakes testing, and the mayor of nearby New York City has proposed eliminating a similar gatekeeping test entirely.

Newark’s “magnet schools are definitely enrolling different kids — fewer English language learners, fewer special-education students, fewer students who eligible for free lunch,” said Christopher Tienken, a professor of education administration at Seton Hall University. “I think they should actually be looking at measures that increase the diversity of the schools.”

Beyond the purpose of the test, experts also raised questions about its design, as the district appears to be creating it in-house with the help of local educators. Tests used for high-stakes purposes such as admissions decisions are expected to meet accepted standards and be carefully vetted.

“The test should be validated before using it,” Taylor said. “You don’t have a test, start admitting kids, and then look to see 30 years later, ‘Well, gee, is this a valid test?’”

Officials may have answers to these questions, but they haven’t yet shared them publicly. The district did not respond to questions for this story or make any officials available for comment.

For now, Chalkbeat has rounded up everything we know about the test so far. And we spoke with experts to find out the best practices when introducing a new exam like this — along with the risks.

What’s on the test?

The test will measure students’ English and math skills.

The district is creating the exam itself, with assistance from principals and other school staffers. The educators helped write math questions and shared essay prompts their schools have used to assess students’ reading and writing skills, said Carla Stephens, principal of Bard High School Early College–Newark.

León “had many calls and meetings where he has been consulting with the magnet school principals about the test,” said Stephens, who shared her magnet school’s writing prompt with the district.

The test will also try to assess students’ interest in each magnet school’s unique focus, which includes science, history, and the arts. León, who attended a magnet school, has said he believes some magnet students lack a real passion for the schools’ themes.

“Magnet high schools were always supposed to be a high school where students had an interest in what that specialty was,” he said. “We want the admissions test is to be able to gauge that.”

Who will take it?

All Newark Public Schools eighth-graders will sit for the test on Friday, Feb. 15.

They will do so in their own schools during the school day — a decision that experts applauded. Other districts have been criticized for administering high-school and college admissions tests on the weekends, making it hard for some students to participate.

All non-district students hoping to attend to a magnet school will take the test on Saturday, Feb. 16.

How will schools use it?

Magnet schools will consider the exam scores as they review and rank applicants. The rankings will determine which students are admitted for the 2019-20 academic year.

The scores will be considered alongside factors the schools already look at, including students’ grades, state test scores, and attendance records. Some schools also interview applicants and assess their writing and math skills, while Arts High School holds auditions.

Experts endorsed the district’s decision to have the schools use the exams in conjunction with other admissions criteria, which they said provides a more complete picture of each applicant.

However, school staffers said they have not been told how much weight each of those factors will be given — and whether schools or the district will decide that.

At one of the city’s most selective magnet schools, Science Park, parents and administrators clashed last year over how much weight should be given to applicants’ state PARCC scores. In a compromise, the school lowered their weight, making the PARCC scores count for 70 percent of applicants’ ranking. Now, Science Park and the other magnets will have to factor the new entrance exam into the mix.

Traditional high schools will also use the admissions test scores, León has said. The scores will determine eligibility for new gifted-and-talented programs that León has directed those schools to establish.

Is the test ready?

By the looks of it, not quite.

Students were originally scheduled to take the test this week, but the district quietly postponed the test until February. The district chalked that up to “logistical modifications.” But as recently as last month, officials said they were still revising the exam.

According to someone who spoke with the superintendent, part of the problem was that the school staffers who helped write the test borrowed heavily from assessments that high-school students take during the year.

“He said the questions were basically copied and pasted,” the person said. “It wasn’t good, so they had to redo it.”

And at a parent meeting this week at one of the most selective magnet schools, Science Park High School, Principal Kathleen Tierney said the test is “still being vetted,” according to an attendee.

What do experts say?

Researchers who study testing asked several pointed questions about Newark’s new high-stakes exam.

First, they wanted to know how officials decided it was necessary. They noted that the magnets already look at students’ grades and state test scores.

Taylor, the research analyst at Hunter College, pointed out that entrance exams can be less effective in identifying promising students than officials realize, calling into question their necessity. In a recent study, he found that the exam used to determine who gets into New York City’s elite “specialized” high schools was actually less predictive of students’ ninth-grade achievement than their grades or state test scores from middle school.

The experts also questioned how the district is ensuring the exam meets industry standards — especially when it’s being developed on such a tight timeline.

One key standard is that a given exam does what it’s intended to do; for instance, help a school predict which students will be able to keep up with its rigorous academic program. Another standard is that the exam is not biased against any group, such as girls or black or Hispanic students.

Some experts advised against using the test results in high-stakes admissions decisions before it has been shown to meet those standards.

“What they should be doing is piloting this test for at least one year,” said Tienken, the Seton Hall professor. “Test design is a multi-year process.”

Kurt F. Geisinger, director of the Buros Center on Testing at the University of Nebraska, said that trying out an exam on a sample of students before its full launch can help detect biases — but that can be difficult to do without having questions leak out. Either way, he said, the district should expect to continuously improve the exam.

“These things do take time to build,” he said. “You can’t expect them to be perfect year one.”

six months in

As Newark superintendent makes whirlwind changes, some residents seek ‘clarity’

PHOTO: Chalkbeat/Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León has made a flurry of policy changes since starting in July. But some observers still aren't clear about his overall vision.

A whirlwind of activity. A legion of initiatives. A blitz of meetings. Pick your metaphor — Superintendent Roger León has been busy.

In his first six months as Newark schools chief, León has overhauled the district’s central office; launched a wide-ranging assortment of programs involving high schools, testing, technology, and more; and offered a litany of wildly ambitious promises, including a vow to make Newark “the highest-performing school district in the country.”

León’s maximalist approach has thrilled many residents who find it invigorating to hear a Newark native present a vision of greatness for a school system that, until February, spent two decades under state control. In recent years, the 36,000-student district has attracted national notoriety mainly for its struggles and the pitched battles that erupted when outside reformers tried to reshape the city’s schools.

But León’s jam-packed agenda and sweeping promises have also raised concerns, even among those rooting for him to succeed — an unease that León may be hoping to address Wednesday evening at a community forum on the district’s future.

Observers have privately asked how the new leader’s disparate initiatives fit together, and whether he can pull them all off simultaneously. Occasionally, their frustration has bubbled to the surface, as when some board members refused to approve some of León’s requests until they knew more about his plans or when Mayor Ras Baraka urged León to make those plans public.

Even the name of León’s elaborate strategy — “NPS Clarity 2020” — has baffled some people, who are unsure when it starts and what it entails. They are hoping the forum will address some of those concerns.

As a former Newark Public Schools educator and administrator, León brings a wealth of experience and institutional knowledge to the job, said Antoinette Baskerville Richardson, the mayor’s chief education officer. While León obviously “has a big vision,” she added, it is imperative that he share detailed plans with the public — especially after 22 years of state control, when officials had license to make wholesale changes without locals’ consent.

“I think a lot of stakeholders are looking for more clarity — and it’s up to the superintendent to bring that,” she said. “Folks are looking for substantive plans.”

After a quarter-century working in the district, León started July 1 with strong convictions about what approaches work in schools — and which don’t. But as he’s rushed to reverse policies he considers ineffective and enact alternatives, schools and partner groups have often had to scramble to keep up.

In June, he tried to oust top district officials before informing the school board, which then rejected some of the staffing changes. In September, he axed a program that extended the hours of struggling schools — resulting in scheduling changes just days before classes began. Last month, he cast doubt on a program that brought extra services to several South Ward schools, leaving the schools and their partner organizations uncertain about its future.

At the same time, he has undertaken several efforts of his own. While most new superintendents are eager to start making their mark, León’s aggressive timeline and ambitious agenda have run up against roadblocks.

He is planning a redesign of the city’s high schools, including changes to the admissions process for magnet schools and new career-themed academies inside the traditional schools. However, the new magnet admissions test was recently postponed, and the district has not formally announced the themes and partners of the new academies. Meanwhile, the enrollment period for next school year is already underway.

León has also promised to tackle one of the district’s most dire and long-standing challenges — absenteeism. One in three Newark students missed the equivalent of a month or more of school days last year, qualifying them as “chronically absent.” The crux of León’s plan for getting students to school is to rehire attendance counselors who were laid off by his predecessor. However, labor rules have complicated the rehiring process, leaving many of the counselor positions unfilled five months into the school year.

Other new superintendents might be content with these already ambitious goals: revamping the district’s high schools and combating severe absenteeism. But León has not stopped there. He has personally reviewed student transcripts and conducted teacher trainings; negotiated changes to the city’s enrollment system with charter-school leaders; and ordered comprehensive audits of the district’s teaching materials and facilities.

León has described different parts of his agenda to different audiences at meetings large and small with parents, district employees, students, union leaders, and local philanthropies. However, members of the public who aren’t invited to all of these gatherings and can’t make the public school-board meetings may have a limited view of León’s entire agenda. His administration seldom holds press conferences or posts summaries of his initiatives on the district website, and reporters’ questions often go unanswered. (A spokeswoman did not respond to questions for this story.)

Deborah Smith-Gregory, president of the Newark NAACP and a former district teacher, said she is eager to learn how León will incorporate all of the feedback he has received into a clear plan with measurable goals.

“He’s doing a lot of outreach,” she said. “But after you get all of those opinions, how do you prioritize what you’re going to pay attention to and implement something that can be measured?”

León may begin to answer that question at the forum Wednesday evening at Central High School. A public notice for the event says it will include a discussion of “goals and timelines” for Clarity 2020, along with a 10-year district roadmap León is crafting and various policy reviews he is conducting.

The event will also kick off a series public meetings intended to gather input for a new three-year strategic plan for the district, according to the notice. León’s predecessor, Christopher Cerf, organized a similar planning process in 2016 to create the district’s current strategic plan.

Whether Wednesday’s forum will leave the public with a clearer sense of León’s overarching vision remains to be seen. But some of the superintendent’s most ardent supporters say they already know enough.

“He’s planning to turn this into the most successful district in the state,” said Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon. “What’s obtuse about that?”

chalkbeat cheat sheet

All eyes are on Denver’s teacher pay negotiations as a strike looms. Here’s where things stand and how to tune in.

PHOTO: Michael Ciaglo/Special to the Denver Post
Eagleton Elementary School first grade teacher Valerie Lovato, left, and East High School French teacher Tiffany Choi hold up signs as the Denver teachers union negotiates with district officials.

Denver Public Schools and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association have been negotiating for more than a year against a backdrop of widespread protests over teacher pay.

Now, the union is inching toward a strike.

The issues at play are narrower than they are in Los Angeles, where teachers are striking over pay but also class sizes and school resources. In Denver, the union and district agreed on a general contract last year. Now, the sides are focused on the district’s complicated pay-for-performance system, with the union pushing for higher salaries and more opportunities for raises.

The union says it will call for a strike vote on Saturday if a new agreement can’t be reached.

In the meantime, negotiations in Denver are particularly interesting because state law requires bargaining to happen in public. If you’re just getting caught up, or want to tune in as the back-and-forth continues, here’s what you should know.

When are the union and district set to negotiate, and how can I watch?

There are two more sessions on the schedule:

  • Thursday, Jan. 17, 9 a.m.-9 p.m.
  • Friday, Jan. 18, 9 a.m.-9 p.m.

Both sessions will take place at the Acoma Campus, at 1617 S. Acoma St., and are open to the public.

You can also watch online. The district often livestreams the negotiations — here’s where you can find them. It doesn’t always, because doing so takes staff time.

If the district isn’t livestreaming, the union will set up a Facebook Live with a cell phone and a tripod, but it will be of lower quality. Here’s the union’s Facebook page.

If you don’t see anything in either place, it probably means the two sides are caucusing, or meeting in private. Those meetings aren’t streamed.

If you tune in, you’ll see members of both negotiating teams. The union’s team includes Pam Shamburg, Denver Classroom Teachers Association’s executive director; Corey Kern, DCTA’s deputy executive director; Henry Roman, DCTA’s president; Rob Gould, a Denver teacher; and several other teachers.

The district’s negotiation team includes Mark Ferrandino, chief financial officer; Susana Cordova, superintendent; and Michelle Berge, general counsel.

What are the union and district at odds over?

The two sides are negotiating the contract that governs the district’s complex pay-for-performance system, known as ProComp.

Denver teachers have long said the pay-for-performance system is too complicated and unpredictable. It pays teachers a base salary and allows them to earn bonuses and incentives for things like high student test scores or working in a hard-to-fill position.

But giving up the incentives altogether would mean giving up tax money raised specifically for teacher salaries. In 2005, Denver voters passed a tax increase to fund ProComp, and the ballot language was specific about how the tax revenue would be used, including to pay teachers for things like working in hard-to-fill positions, increasing their teaching skills, and earning positive evaluations. District officials project the tax will raise $33 million next year.

Where do things stand?

The timing: The current agreement is set to expire Friday, and union leaders have said they will call for a strike vote on Saturday if a new agreement cannot be reached.

The Denver Classroom Teachers Association informed the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment on Jan. 8 of its intent to strike. A union must give the state 20 days notice, which means the earliest a strike could start would be Jan. 28.

The basics: The biggest sticking point is money. Buoyed by widespread protests over teacher pay in Colorado and other states, the Denver union has asked the district to invest about $30 million more of its $1 billion budget into teacher compensation.

The district’s offer as of Jan. 11 would invest $23 million more into teacher pay. District officials have said some of that money will come from increased state funding, but $7 million would come from cuts to the district’s central office, where many administrators work.

The salary schedule: The union has proposed returning to a more traditional salary schedule. The maximum base salary would be $100,000, which a teacher with a doctorate could earn after  20 years of positive evaluations.

After offering less than that for months, the district’s Jan. 11 proposal matched that $100,000 maximum base salary. Earning it would require a teacher with a doctorate to have 30 years of positive evaluations.

The base salary for a first-year teacher with a bachelor’s degree on the district’s schedule as of Jan. 11 would be $45,500. The union’s schedule would start at $45,000.

The union’s salary schedule differs from the one the district has proposed in one major way: it has more “lanes,” which allow teachers to get raises more frequently.

The “lanes” represent a teacher’s education level. The salary schedule also has “steps,” which represent a teacher’s years of satisfactory evaluations.

The union’s proposed salary schedule has nine “lanes” and 20 “steps.” The district’s Jan. 11 offer has only six “lanes” but 30 “steps.” In the union’s view, the district’s offer doesn’t give teachers enough of a salary boost for furthering their own education.

The district’s proposal is an attempt to diversify the ways teachers can get a pay raise. Teachers could move a lane by getting an advanced license or serving for 10 consecutive years, in addition to earning a higher degree or National Board certification.

Contract talks hit a sticking point Tuesday, with the union insisting the district embrace a salary table with its preferred structure for steps and lanes. Negotiations that were scheduled for all day ended before lunch as district negotiators regrouped. District officials say they want a counterproposal from the union, while the union says the ball is still in the district’s court.

About those bonuses: The district and the union also disagree on the size of the bonuses and incentives. The union favors larger base salaries and smaller incentives, with some as small as $1,000.

The district has proposed three different incentives at $2,500 each. One would be for teachers who work in high-poverty schools, where more than 60 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Another would be for teachers who work in hard-to-fill positions, such as special education and secondary math, and teachers who teach in Spanish.

The third $2,500 incentive would be in the form of a retention bonus for teachers who return to work at a set of 30 schools the district and the union deem “highest priority.”

About 72 percent of Denver teachers would qualify for one of the two $2,500 incentives, district officials said on Jan. 11. About 37 of those same teachers would qualify for both incentives.

A first-year teacher with a bachelor’s degree who gets both incentives — say, a first-year special education teacher in a high-poverty school — could make $50,500 under the district’s proposal.

How did we get here?

Here is a timeline if you’re looking to dive even deeper.