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:

Betsy DeVos

To promote virtual schools, Betsy DeVos cites a graduate who’s far from the norm

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in June.

If Betsy Devos is paying any attention to unfolding critiques of virtual charter schools, she didn’t let it show last week when she spoke to free-market policy advocates in Bellevue, Washington.

Just days after Politico published a scathing story about virtual charters’ track record in Pennsylvania, DeVos, the U.S. education secretary, was touting their successes at the Washington Policy Center’s annual dinner.

DeVos’s speech was largely identical in its main points to one she gave at Harvard University last month. But she customized the stories of students who struggled in traditional schools with local examples, and in doing so provided an especially clear example of why she believes in virtual schools.

From the speech:

I also think of Sandeep Thomas. Sandeep grew up impoverished in Bangalore, India and experienced terrible trauma in his youth. He was adopted by a loving couple from New Jersey, but continued to suffer from the unspeakable horrors he witnessed in his early years. He was not able to focus in school, and it took him hours to complete even the simplest assignment.

This changed when his family moved to Washington, where Sandeep was able to enroll in a virtual public school. This option gave him the flexibility to learn in the quiet of his own home and pursue his learning at a pace that was right for him. He ended up graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA, along with having earned well over a year of college credit. Today, he’s working in finance and he is a vocal advocate for expanding options that allow students like him a chance to succeed.

But Thomas — who spoke at a conference of a group DeVos used to chair, Advocates for Children, in 2013 as part of ongoing work lobbying for virtual charters — is hardly representative of online school students.

In Pennsylvania, Politico reported last week, 30,000 students are enrolled in virtual charters with an average 48 percent graduation rate. In Indiana, an online charter school that had gotten a stunning six straight F grades from the state — one of just three schools in that positionis closing. And an Education Week investigation into Colorado’s largest virtual charter school found that not even a quarter of the 4,000 students even log on to do work every day.

The fact that in many states with online charters, large numbers of often needy students have enrolled without advancing has not held DeVos back from supporting the model. (A 2015 study found that students who enrolled in virtual charters in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin did just as well as similar students who stayed in brick-and-mortar schools.) In fact, she appeared to ignore their track records during the confirmation process in January, citing graduation rates provided by a leading charter operator that were far higher — nearly 40 points in one case — than the rates recorded by the schools’ states.

She has long backed the schools, and her former organization has close ties to major virtual school operators, including K12, the one that generated the inflated graduation numbers. In her first week as education secretary, DeVos said, “I expect there will be more virtual schools.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the location of the dinner.

expansion plans

Here are the next districts where New York City will start offering preschool for 3-year-olds

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, left, and Mayor Bill de Blasio, center, visited a "Mommy and Me" class in District 27 in Queens, where the city is set to expand 3-K For All.

New York City officials on Tuesday announced which school districts are next in line for free pre-K for 3-year-olds, identifying East Harlem and the eastern neighborhoods of Queens for expansion of the program.

Building on its popular universal pre-K program for 4-year-olds, the city this year began serving even younger students with “3-K For All” in two high-needs school districts. Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he wants to make 3-K available to every family who wants it by 2021.

“Our education system all over the country had it backwards for too long,” de Blasio said at a press conference. “We are recognizing we have to reach kids younger and more deeply if we’re going to be able to give them the foundation they need.”

But making preschool available to all of the city’s 3-year-olds will require an infusion of $700 million from the state or federal governments. In the meantime, de Blasio said the city can afford to expand to eight districts, at a cost of $180 million of city money a year.

Funding isn’t the only obstacle the city faces to make 3-K available universally. De Blasio warned that finding the room for an estimated 60,000 students will be a challenge. Space constraints were a major factor in picking the next districts for expansion, he said.

“I have to tell you, this will take a lot of work,” he said, calling it “even harder” than the breakneck rollout of pre-K for all 4-year-olds. “We’re building something brand new.”

De Blasio, a Democrat who is running for re-election in November, has made expansion of early childhood education a cornerstone of his administration. The city kicked off its efforts this September in District 7 in the South Bronx, and District 23 in Brownsville, Brooklyn. More than 2,000 families applied for those seats, and 84 percent of those living in the pilot districts got an offer for enrollment, according to city figures.

According to the timeline released Thursday, the rollout will continue next school year in District 4 in Manhattan, which includes East Harlem; and District 27 in Queens, which includes Broad Channel, Howard Beach, Ozone Park and Rockaways.

By the 2019 – 2020 school year, the city plans to launch 3-K in the Bronx’s District 9, which includes the Grand Concourse, Highbridge and Morrisania neighborhoods; and District 31, which spans all of Staten Island.

The 2020 – 2021 school year would see the addition of District 19 in Brooklyn, which includes East New York; and District 29 in Queens, which includes Cambria Heights, Hollis, Laurelton, Queens Village, Springfield Gardens and St. Albans.

With all those districts up and running, the city expects to serve 15,000 students.

Admission to the city’s pre-K programs is determined by lottery. Families don’t have to live in the district where 3-K is being offered to apply for a seat, though preference will be given to students who do. With every expansion, the city expects it will take two years for each district to have enough seats for every district family who wants one.