study says...

Report: The state's "achievement gap" is narrowing, very slowly

PHOTO: Nell Gluckman
A graph using data from the Nation's Report Card shows the achievement gap of fourth graders on a national math exam.

A new report throws some cold water on optimism about the state’s black-white achievement gap, finding that while the gap is narrowing, it’s no different from the national average.

The findings were part of a report by the National Center for Education Statistics that examined racial achievement gaps for math and reading across the country. Relying on data culled from the National Assessment of Education Progress exam — also known as the Nation’s Report Card —  from the early 1990s to 2007, the report zeros in on the scores of the nation’s fourth and eighth graders.

On a national level, the study found that the reading achievement gap has slowly narrowed, but the math gap has not budged. Students’ scores have increased in both areas, but black students’ scores need to go up faster than whites’ scores in order for the gap to close.

“I think New York fits in,” said Stuart Kerachsky, acting commissioner of  the National Center for Education Statistics, on a conference call with reporters this morning. “Its gap is not significantly different from the average gap and it didn’t change in a significant way.”

Kerachsky also noted that New York’s achievement gap increased slightly between 2005 and 2007 for fourth graders taking math and reading exams. New data on the state’s achievement gap will arrive this fall, when the Nation’s Report Card is due to come out.

The most recent data, which comes from 2007, shows New York State’s racial achievement gaps nearly matching national averages. They are also quite similar to the averages in New Jersey, which has similar demographics. Connecticut, which also has regional similarities, has above average achievement gaps in both fourth and eight grades.

In 2007, black and white fourth graders across the nation had an achievement gap of 26 points on the math exam, just as they did in New York. For fourth grade reading, it was 27 points, whereas it was 26 points in New York. Gaps among eighth graders also mimicked the national numbers.

Looking back at older data from the early 1990s to the most recent information, it becomes more difficult to discern a distinct trend in New York.

For example, a graph of fourth grade achievement in reading shows an achievement gap of 27 in 1992, a gap of 37 in 1998, a gap of 24 in 2005, and then a gap of 26 in 2007.

“It looks like it’s just bouncing around and it’s not heading in one particular direction. It’s staying pretty flat,” said Howard Everson, a psychometrician at Fordham University.

Everson, who is the lead testing adviser to the New York State Education Department and an adviser to the federal government on its testing regime, said these fluctuations likely occur because of changes in the test’s samples. The Report Card exams in reading and math are given every two years to different schools across the country that volunteer for them.

In a statement released by the Foundation for Education Reform and Accountability, director of research and communications B. Jason Brooks said he was concerned that between 2005 and 2007, New York States’ gap widened slightly while the national gap narrowed.

“According to this well-regarded national assessment, and despite the claims of some education policy makers, New York has failed to effectively level the playing field for academic achievement,” he said.

Everson said that using the state data to cast judgment on New York City schools wasn’t entirely fair, as there’s no way of knowing how many city students are in the Report Card samples.

Still, he said he was skeptical of Mayor Bloomberg and chancellor Joel Klein’s claims to have significantly narrowed the city’s achievement gap.

“I think I would take the Bloomberg claims with a grain of salt because we just need more data,” he said.

Kerachsky said this was the first time the organization had included analysis of state data in its national report. However, it does not include information from all states, as a handful of states such as Montana and Idaho, do not have enough black students to produce a statistically significant sample size. The National Center for Education Statistics is currently working on a similar achievement gap study that focuses on white and Latino students.

Grade 4, math


Grade 4, reading


Grade 8, math


Grade 8, reading


first steps

Superintendent León secures leadership team, navigates evolving relationship with board

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León at Tuesday's school board meeting.

As Newark’s new superintendent prepares for the coming academic year, the school board approved the final members of his leadership team Tuesday and began piecing together a roadmap to guide his work.

The board confirmed three assistant superintendents chosen by Superintendent Roger León: Jose Fuentes, the principal of First Avenue School in the North Ward; Sandra Rodriguez, a Hoboken principal who previously oversaw Newark Public Schools’ early childhood office; and Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School in the East Ward. They join three other assistant superintendents León selected for his team, along with a deputy superintendent, chief of staff, and several other officials.

The three assistant superintendents confirmed Tuesday had first come before the board in June, but at that time none of them secured enough votes to be approved. During last month’s meeting, the board assented to several of León’s leadership picks and to his decision to remove many people from the district’s central office, but it also blocked him from ousting several people.

This week, Board Chair Josephine Garcia declined to comment on the board’s reversal, and León did not respond to a request for comment.

What is clear is that the board and León are still navigating their relationship.

In February, the board regained local control of the district 22 years after the state seized control of the district due to poor performance and mismanagement. The return to local control put the board back in charge of setting district policy and hiring the superintendent, who previously answered only to the state. Still, the superintendent, not the board, is responsible for overseeing the district’s day-to-day operations.

During a board discussion Tuesday, Garcia hinted at that delicate balance of power.

“Now that we’re board members, we want to make sure that, of course, yes, we’re going to have input and implementation,” but that they don’t overstep their authority, she said.

Under state rules, the board is expected to develop district goals and policies, which the superintendent is responsible for acting on. But León — a former principal who spent the past decade serving as an assistant superintendent — has his own vision for the district, which he hopes to convince the board to support, he said in a recent interview on NJTV.

“It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see as appropriate,” he said.

Another matter still being ironed out by the board and superintendent is communication.

León did not notify the full board before moving to force out 31 district officials and administrators, which upset some members. And he told charter school leaders in a closed-door meeting that he plans to keep intact the single enrollment system for district and charter schools — a controversial policy the board is still reviewing.

The district has yet to make a formal announcement about the staff shake-up, including the appointment of León’s new leadership team. And when the board voted on the new assistant superintendents Tuesday, it used only the appointed officials’ initials — not their full names. However, board member Leah Owens stated the officials’ full names when casting her vote.

The full names, titles and salaries of public employees are a matter of public record under state law.

Earlier, board member Yambeli Gomez had proposed improved communication as a goal for the board.

“Not only communication within the board and with the superintendent,” she said, “but also communication with the public in a way that’s more organized.”

The board spent much of Tuesday’s meeting brainstorming priorities for the district.

Members offered a grab bag of ideas, which were written on poster paper. Under the heading “student achievement,” they listed literacy, absenteeism, civics courses, vocational programs, and teacher quality, among other topics. Under other “focus areas,” members suggested classroom materials, parent involvement, and the arts.

Before the school year begins in September, León is tasked with shaping the ideas on that poster paper into specific goals and an action plan.

After the meeting, education activist Wilhelmina Holder said she hopes the board will focus its attention on a few key priorities.

“There was too much of a laundry list,” she said.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”