Making the grade

City schools to be graded on a curve for next year's report cards

Many of the city elementary and middle schools who received A’s on last year’s report cards are likely to see their grades drop under a new scoring system for next year, Department of Education officials told principals today.

Next year, only the top-scoring 25 percent of elementary and middle schools will receive A’s, with just under a third of schools each getting B’s and C’s. A tenth of schools will be handed D’s, and 5 percent will receive failing grades, according to the plan outlined today by the city’s accountability chief Shael Polakow-Suransky.

(More than 80 percent of elementary and middle schools took home A’s on their progress reports for last school year.)

The change comes as part of the first step of a gradual recalibration of the way schools are rated in the city’s progress reports system and is also a by-product of the wider state effort to overhaul tests given to New York’s third through eighth graders.

State education officials are redesigning tests this year, both to make them more difficult and to judge a wider set of skills. Students are also taking state test in May this year for the first time, where in the past they’ve sat for exams in January.

Suransky said the curved grading system was to account for the uncertainty of how the variety of changes in the state exams are going to affect schools’ performances. The city wants to let principals know how their schools will be graded at the start of each year, but given the haze that still lies over the coming tests, Suransky said it wouldn’t be fair to schools to guess what bars for success should be set.

“We could well end up in a situation where most of the schools could be D’s and F’s” if the city guessed wrong, Suransky said in an interview. “And that wouldn’t be an accurate depiction of how schools are doing.”

Suransky said that the curved grading system was likely to be temporary until the DOE can accurately gauge what scores the most successful schools should receive. Because state exams for high school students are not changing this year, high schools will continue to be graded as they have in the past.

Some school principals said that despite the effort to account for the x-factor of the new state tests, there is still plenty of uncertainty in the new system.

“My concern is that an A means a school is outstanding, and can we all be outstanding?” asked Janet Heller, principal of M.S. 324, the Patricia Mirabal School. “What does outstanding mean?”

“Will a school that is outstanding not be given an A because the quota of 25% was met?” Heller continued. “Are they saying that any school that has a 90 to 100 grade is outstanding, or are they saying that we will only allow 25% of our schools to be called outstanding?”

Another principal, Stacey Gauthier of Renaissance Charter School, said that the ambiguity leaves principals unsure of how to prepare for their year.

“If [the report card system] keeps changing and the criteria isn’t clear, it’s a little bit unfair to the schools,” she said. “It’s like saying to a kid, I don’t really now what kind of test I’m going to give you, but when things come out I’ll figure it out. That’s not really the best assessment.”

Gauthier said that because city report card grades have concrete repercussions for schools, knowing in advance how a school will be evaluated matters. “Schools are closed based on this information, schools go on remediation, schools lose funding, parents look at this — it is high stakes,” she said.

The change in grade distribution was one of several changes to the report card grading system announced today, some of which are likely to be welcomed by schools and advocates.

For example, the report cards will now grade student progress in a way that controls for students’ scores the year before and compares each students’ progress with other students who started at the same place.

In previous years’ reports, students were grouped by whether or not they scored above or below state tests’ proficiency bar, and each student was compared against others in their group. “That was a blunter version [of comparisons], and this is going to get more granular,” Suransky said.

Another change will alter the way schools are judged for their work with disabled students. The reports will set specific goals students must reach to boost special education students’ academic achievement, and will consider gains made by students differently according to level of need.

“We want to make it really clear that if you do well with these students, you will be rewarded,” Suransky said.

But the element of the report card program that has drawn perhaps the most criticism since its introduction in 2007 — that grades are weighted too heavily on the results of standardized tests — remains unchanged.

The plan released today isn’t yet final. Suransky’s accountability office will be meeting with groups of principals and parents for feedback, and will announce the final changes to the progress report system in March, he said.

Along with the changes to report card grading, Suransky’s accountability office also released a clarification of new state guidelines for granting high-school students course credit. Among the changes will be a new way to monitor how schools are granting credit recovery, which gives students credit for classes they have failed. The DOE has not previously tracked credit recovery programs or the numbers of course credits gained in them. The city will also begin randomly auditing the scoring of Regents exams at 10 percent of the city’s high schools, Sursansky said.

Here’s the letter that Suransky sent to principals today, along with memos detailing the changes to the report cards and credit accumulation:

pre-k for all

New York City will add dual language options in pre-K to attract parents and encourage diversity

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen FariƱa, back right, visits a Mandarin pre-K dual language program at P.S. 20 Anna Silver on the Lower East Side.

Education Department officials on Wednesday announced the addition of 33 dual language pre-K programs in the 2018-19 school year, more than doubling the bilingual opportunities available for New York City’s youngest learners.

The expansion continues an aggressive push under the current administration, which has added 150 new bilingual programs to date. Popular with parents — there were 2,900 applications for about 600 pre-K dual language seats last year — the programs can also be effective in boosting the performance of students who are learning English as a new language.

Another possible benefit: creating more diverse pre-K classrooms, which research has shown are starkly segregated in New York City.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said the new programs reflect the city’s commitment to serving all students, even as a national debate rages over immigration reform.

“It’s important to understand that immigrants or people who speak a second language are an asset,” Fariña said. She called bilingual education “a gift that I think all schools should have.”

Included in the expansion are the city’s first dual language pre-K programs in Bengali and Russian, which will open in Jamaica, Queens, and the Upper West Side, Manhattan, respectively. The other additions will build on programs in Spanish, Mandarin and Italian. Every borough is represented in the expansion, with 11 new programs in Manhattan, nine in Brooklyn, six in Queens, five in the Bronx, and two on Staten Island.

In the dual-language model, students split their time between instruction in English and another language. At P.S. 20 Anna Silver, where the recent expansion was announced, pre-K students start the morning in English and transition to Mandarin after nap time. Experts say the model works best when the class includes an equal mix of students who are proficient in each language so they can learn from each other as well as the teacher, though it can often be difficult to strike that balance.

Officials and some advocates view dual-language programs as a tool for integration by drawing middle-class families eager to have their children speak two languages into neighborhood schools that they otherwise may not have considered. Research has shown that New York City’s pre-K classrooms tend to be more segregated than kindergarten. In one in six pre-K classrooms, more than 90 percent of students are from a single racial or ethnic background. That’s compared with one in eight kindergarten classrooms, according to a 2016 report by The Century Foundation.

Sharon Stapel, a mother from Brooklyn, said she knew early on that she wanted her daughter to learn another language and strike relationships across cultures. So she travels to the Lower East Side with her four-year-old, Finch, to attend the Mandarin dual-language pre-K program at P.S. 20 Anna Silver. On Wednesday, the city announced it will add a Spanish dual language program at the school.

“We really see it as how you build community with your neighbors and your friends,” Stapel said. “It was also an opportunity for Finch to become involved and engage in the cultures and in the differences that she could see in the classrooms — and really celebrate that difference.”

Citywide, about 13 percent of students are learning English as a new language. That number does not include pre-K since the state does not have a way to identify students’ language status before kindergarten. However, based on census data, it is estimated that 30 percent of three- and four-year-olds in New York are English learners.

Dual-language programs can benefit students who are still learning English — more so than English-only instruction. Nationally and in New York City, students who are learning English are less likely to pass standardized tests and graduate from high school. In one study, students who enrolled in dual-language courses in kindergarten gained the equivalent of one year of reading instruction by eighth grade, compared with their peers who received English-only instruction.

The city has been under pressure to improve outcomes for English learners. Under the previous administration, New York City was placed on a state “corrective action plan” that required the education department to open 125 new bilingual programs by 2013. Though the city fell short of that goal, the current administration has agreed to place every English learner in a bilingual program by the 2018-19 school year.

Among the greatest barriers to achieving that is finding qualified teachers, Fariña said. In some cases, it can be hard to find teachers who are fluent in the target language. In others, teachers who are native in a foreign language may only be certified in their home country, and it can be hard to transfer that certification to New York.

In order to open an Urdu program recently, Fariña said, the teacher, who holds a degree from another country, went through Teaching Fellows, an alternative certification program that usually caters to career-changers or recent college grads.

“I think the biggest challenge we have right now is ensuring our teacher preparation courses are keeping up with our need and demand for teachers who can teach another language,” she said.

college plans

As Washington decides their fate, ‘Dreamers’ preparing for college are stuck in limbo

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post
Randi Smith, a psychology teacher at Metro State University, marched to support Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals during a citywide walkout in downtown Denver, CO.

While many high schoolers spend spring of their senior year coasting through classes and waiting to hear back from colleges, undocumented students who hope to attend college spend their time calling lawyers, consulting school counselors, and scouring the internet in search of ways to pay for school without the help of federal financial aid or student loans — assuming they even get in.

That process, anxiety-provoking even in a normal year, has become incalculably more chaotic this admissions season — even traumatic — as these young undocumented immigrants watch President Trump and lawmakers wrangle over Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the program that has until now allowed them to remain in the country without having to fear deportation.

As the policy battle nears a climax, these students aren’t just breathlessly waiting to learn whether they’ll be accepted into college — they’re waiting to see whether they have a future in this country.

“It’s different for me. It’s definitely more stressful and there are times when you want to give up,” said an undocumented student at KIPP NYC College Prep High School, who is graduating this year and applying to colleges. She requested anonymity because of her legal status. “But then I remind myself that regardless of what’s going on, I’m still going to do what I’ve set myself to do.”

High school counselors are also feeling the strain. They already faced the difficult task of helping undocumented students compete for private scholarships, and finding schools that will support those students once they’re on campus. Now those counselors also must monitor each twist and turn of the immigration debate in Washington, while, somehow, trying to keep their undocumented students focused on college.

One of those counselors is John Kearney, who works at Guadalupe Centers Alta Vista High School, a charter school in Kansas City, Missouri. Dozens of his soon-to-graduate students are beneficiaries of DACA, a program created under former President Obama that allows undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children to avoid deportation and work here legally. Lately, they have been asking him why they should even consider college when their fate in the U.S. is so uncertain.

“The big question is, ‘Why? Why go to college, and then I can’t even work, then why?’” said Kearney, who also helped start a nonprofit that provides scholarships to undocumented students. “It’s a really tough question.”

As of Friday, President Trump and lawmakers were still locked in heated negotiations over DACA, which Trump said this fall that he would eliminate unless Congress enshrined it in law. Without an agreement, it is set to expire March 5, just as graduating seniors firm up their college plans. If that happens, young immigrants, often called Dreamers, could lose the few crucial protections they have. For many, their DACA status has already lapsed.

Even with DACA’s protections, Dreamers face massive hurdles to enroll in college: They don’t qualify for federal aid or loans, and, in some states, are barred from receiving financial aid or even attending public universities. Out of the estimated 65,000 undocumented students who graduate from high school every year, only 5-10 percent enroll in college.

Following Trump’s announcement in September, counselors have also had to race against the clock counting down to DACA’s expiration: That meant juggling college application deadlines with the October cutoff for students to apply for renewed DACA status.

The KIPP charter school network received a donation this year to help students pay for the renewal fee, which has been a godsend for many students — including the young woman who is graduating from KIPP NYC College Prep High School.

As soon as she learned the school would pay the fee for her, she immediately called her father, who is also undocumented and repairs beauty-salon equipment for a living.

“My dad was definitely trying to round up the money before the deadline, so it was a blessing that the school was able to find a donor,” she said. “I told him not to worry about it and it was a relief — like a weight off his shoulders.”

If the girl was trying to relieve her father’s stress, her college counselor, Rob Santos, was trying to do the same for her. Even as she balanced college-application essays, transcripts, and the rest, she was also coming to realize how quickly her life would change if DACA is not extended.

“There was definitely extra emotional support that I’ve had to provide this year,” Santos said. “I definitely had my DACA student in my office, and tears were happening.”

Santos keeps a running list of the colleges that accept students who don’t have permanent legal status and the few scholarships available to them. Many of those scholarships require undocumented students to have DACA status. If the program ends, it’s unclear whether students will still be eligible.

Still, Santos said his dreamer student rarely talks about the political furor surrounding her future in the U.S. as she awaits her college-acceptance letter. Instead, she’s more likely to discuss her hope of one day studying business and fashion.

“Our DACA students are resilient. They’re optimistic,” Santos said. “But they’re also realistic for what could actually happen.”