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:

survey says

More bullying reported at New York City schools, study shows

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

More New York City students say there is bullying in their schools, a report released Monday showed. The findings also revealed that many schools reporting the greatest number of violent incidents on campus have no social workers on staff.

The report was commissioned by New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer.

Stringer also released an audit of how school safety matters are recorded, and concluded that the education department should provide more oversight and streamline incident reporting rules.

“The audit found clear breakdowns in communication in the reporting and tracking of incidents and actions taken,” according to a press release from Stringer’s office.

The education department disputed some of the comptroller’s findings, and in a written statement, spokeswoman Miranda Barbot wrote: “We have detailed protocols in place to ensure allegations of bullying are immediately reported, investigated and addressed, and are investing in both anti-bullying initiatives and mental health supports.”

But the pair of reports raises scrutiny of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s school discipline reforms, which favor  “restorative” practices that emphasize mediation over punishment, and make it harder to suspend students.

Advocates of the de Blasio reforms say the shift is necessary because black and Hispanic students are more likely to be arrested or disciplined at school. Research has shown such disciplinary action can lead to higher dropout rates. Critics of the reforms, meanwhile, say the changes have created more chaotic schools.

The findings are also likely to add to a chorus of parents and elected officials who say more emotional supports are needed for the city’s most vulnerable students. Students who experience a mental health crisis during the school day may be handcuffed and shuttled to hospitals. The city’s latest budget, which was approved last week, includes an additional $2 million to hire social workers and guidance counselors in schools that currently don’t have any.

Here are some highlights from the reports.

More students report there is bullying in their schools — but the data comes with a catch.

Last year, the education department’s annual survey showed that 82 percent of students said their peers “harass, bully, or intimidate others in school.” That’s up year over year, and up significantly from 65 percent of students in 2012, which was the lowest rate recorded since at least 2010. (De Blasio’s discipline reforms started to take effect around 2015.)

A note about these numbers: Prior to 2017, the survey asked whether students harass, bully or intimidate other students none, some, most, or all of the time. The most recent survey responses were slightly different: none of the time, rarely, some of the time, or most of the time — a change that may have artificially inflated the bullying numbers.

That’s enough to render the survey data unreliable said Max Eden, a researcher who has studied school climate for the conservative-leaning Manhattan Institute — a critic of the mayor’s discipline reforms. Still, taken with other findings, it’s reasonable to think that bullying is on the rise at city schools, he said.

Among the other evidence: A first-of-its-kind report, released this month under a new city law, that showed substantiated bullying incidents are on track to increase this year.

Schools that log the most violent incidents often lack mental health supports.

Guidance counselors and social workers are key when it comes to creating safe schools because they can help address the root cause of violent or troublesome behavior, advocates who want more mental health supports say.

But many of the city’s neediest schools go without that help.

Of the schools reporting the most violent incidents on campus, 36 percent lack a full-time social worker, the comptroller found. On campuses where there are social workers, caseloads are a staggering 700 to one. That far exceeds the recommended ratio from the National Association of Social Workers of 250 general education students per social worker — and it’s higher than the citywide average of 612 students per social worker, according to the comptroller.

The comptroller’ compares that to the ratio of New York Police Department school safety agents who are placed in schools: There is one safety agent per 228 students, according to the report.

“Our city is failing to meet the social and emotional needs of our students,” Councilman Mark Treyger, of Brooklyn, who has pushed the city to report more up-to-date bullying data and to hire more school counselors, said in an emailed statement.

Schools may be underreporting violent incidents, something the education department disputes.

In a separate audit, the comptroller compared logs kept by school safety agents to incident reports filed by school leaders. In 21 percent of cases, incidents that were noted by safety agents were not reflected in the school reports.

The school data, in turn, are used to report incidents to the state for its Violent and Disruptive Incident Report, or VADIR. The discrepancy could raise questions about the already-controversial reporting system. (VADIR has been criticized for classifying schoolyard incidents as serious offenses, and the state has tweaked its definitions in response to those kinds of concerns.)

This finding also comes with some caveats. The comptroller looked at only 10 schools — a tiny sample of the city’s portfolio of about 1,800. And the education department took issue with the methodology.

In its response to the audit, education department officials said that the police data doesn’t align with the state’s reporting categories, and that the information may not be comparable because of student privacy concerns and recordkeeping issues on campuses where multiple schools share a building.  

Student Voice

Boasting impressive resumes, five Newark students compete for a school board seat

PHOTO: Newark Public Schools
Top row: Amanda Amponsah, Nailah Cornish, Andre Ferreira. Bottom row: Shalom Jimoh, Emmanuel Ogbonnaya.

Earlier this year, Newark residents elected three new members to the city’s re-empowered school board. Now, public school students can choose one of their own to join the board, which in February became the district’s governing body for the first time in more than two decades.

Students have until midnight on Tuesday, June 5, to vote online for a rising 12th-grader to represent their interests on the school board. The winning student representative will provide the board with student perspectives on district policy, but will not be permitted to vote.

Eligible candidates are required to have a minimum 3.0 grade-point average, a satisfactory disciplinary record, and to submit peer and faculty recommendations. Last week, the five candidates participated in a debate, which can be heard here.

The candidates are:

  • Amanda Amponsah, of University High School, who is class president, captain of the softball team, a member of the marching band, and an aspiring pediatric oncologist.
  • Nailah Cornish, of Barringer Academy of Arts and Humanities, who plays basketball and volleyball, runs her own modeling program, and plans to study law and business in college.
  • Andre Ferreira, of Science Park High School, who is a soccer player, debater, and vice president of the student leadership organization. He plans to major in political science and aspires to work for the United Nations.
  • Shalom Jimoh, of Weequahic High School, who immigrated from Nigeria, and is now a member of the student government council, the National Honor Society, and the track and volleyball teams. She plans to study medicine and theater arts in college.
  • Emmanuel Ogbonnaya, of Weequahic High School, who serves as school photographer, soccer team captain, and is a member of the National Honor Society. Emmanuel wants to study engineering, and then start a company that combines photography, architecture, and engineering.

The winner will join the board at an historic moment. Control of the district reverted to the city in February, when state officials determined the district had met its requirements for home rule. The district had been run by the state for 22 years prior.

Last year, more than 1,200 students  — or about 13 percent of Newark public high school students — voted for a student representative to the school board, which then functioned in an advisory capacity only. This year, a Newark student group tried to ramp up turnout with text messages and a video posted on Facebook encouraging voting.

“The student representative will work closely with administrators and board members to make sure that all student voices are heard,” according to a video produced in advance of the vote by the Youth Media Symposium at the Abbott Leadership Institute, a Newark civic-engagement group. “Now that we have local control, this is more crucial than ever.”

As of 4 p.m. Tuesday, 1,381 votes had been cast. District officials said the winner will be announced Friday, and will be introduced publicly at the board’s June 12 meeting. The representative will then be required to attend at least four board meetings and various district events during the 2018–2019 academic year.