accountability accountability

Monitors are missing piece from proposal to boost test security

When Education Secretary Arne Duncan urged the country’s education commissioners this summer to ensure their standardized tests were as secure and reliable as possible, he specifically recommended four measures that would help them do so.

Here in New York State, officials for the most part heeded his advice. Last week, Commissioner John King’s proposal to upgrade testing and scoring procedures included three of the four measures.

But state officials ignored one Duncan recommendation: to conduct “unannounced, on-site visits during test administration.” That raised a red flag for Kathleen Cashin, a member of the Board of Regents who supervised schools in Brooklyn and Queens for many years.

“That is a preventive way, if someone is thinking of cheating, they might think twice if they knew someone was in the building touring,” Cashin said at last week’s Board of Regents meeting.

Principals and teachers report they rarely or never see test monitors in their schools, but it wasn’t always that way.

As a former district and regional superintendant in Brooklyn, Cashin said she blanketed her schools with monitors on testing days — uncovered cheating tactics that she said aren’t likely to be discovered in a computerized analysis of answer sheets, which King’s proposal calls for.

Transgressions included test proctors who helped students on questions, guided them toward the correct answer, allowed more time than was allotted and posted instructional materials on walls that would be helpful on tests.

“We caught people cheating even with the oversight,” said Cashin. “Imagine what’s going on without it.”

Cashin was referring to a change in the way test monitors are distributed among schools. Before school support services were restructured around networks, district offices had the responsibility of monitoring and deploying staff members to schools on test days. But district offices were downsized and stripped of many school responsibilities as part of the shift.

Now, test monitoring is coordinated centrally. Monitors are dispersed randomly to cover about 10 percent of schools that administer standardized tests. Last year, they made 99 visits to 97 elementary and middle schools over the six-day testing period.

“People know that at any moment, someone could be in there,” said Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky, who oversees implementation of the current system. “We’re not going to have enough people to hit every single school on every single testing day, but the fact that people are aware that they will eventually get audited as part of that is an effective deterrent.”

Teachers and principals have noticed the drop-off in monitors on test day as well.

“We used to have monitors where you had a body going room to room but now you have teachers who are alone in their own exam,” said Robert Hannibal, a middle school principal in the Bronx. “I haven’t had (monitors) in three or four years.”

One teacher said that while she never saw any of the monitors, their visits were “mentioned during every meeting preparing us to administer the tests and were seen as quite likely to be sent to our schools.”

“In recent years,” the teacher said, “I have never heard of monitors.”

State regulations don’t have specific requirements for school districts when it comes to conducting on-site visits and Polakow-Suransky points out that New York City’s guidelines actually go above and beyond what is required of them from the state.

Still, Cashin believes the random sampling implemented by New York City is insufficient and said districts should boost monitoring statewide.

Many state officials, including Cashin, say that districts should be responsible for providing their own monitors on test days. It is unclear what role, if any, the state would play in forcing districts to do so.

A new regulation that mandates districts to allocate resources and personnel for on-site visits could still emerge if it wasn’t included in this month’s proposal. King said that he would take Cashin’s suggestions into consideration when he consults with his test security task force and return with a more detailed plan at next month’s meeting.

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.”