life without tests

Schools without Regents exams cite success amid shifting tides

City high schools that don’t require students to take Regents exams beat city averages on most metrics, even though they serve high-need students at the same rate as other schools, according to a new report.

The report, released this week, was produced by a group of the schools, the New York Performance Standards Consortium. But it examines independent data about student performance and persistence in college to find that students in consortium schools graduate at higher rates and are more likely to attend and remain enrolled in college. And it comes as Department of Education officials are increasingly touting the consortium’s approach to assessment.

The graduation rates are especially high for students with disabilities and English language learners. Nearly 70 percent of ELLs in consortium schools graduate on time, according to the report, compared to about 40 percent across the city. And half of students with disabilities in the consortium schools graduate on time, compared with fewer than a quarter citywide.

“What’s in [the report] is dynamite,” said Michelle Fine, a professor of urban education at City University of New York’s Graduate Center.

Fine was speaking at a press conference hosted by the New York Civil Liberties Union on alternatives to high-stakes testing earlier this week to announce that more than 1,100 academics had signed a letter opposing states’ increasingly reliance on test scores.

At the press conference, Fine and Diane Ravitch, a vocal critic of testing and city education policy, said the consortium’s success is proof the rest of the country has moved in the wrong direction since the group was founded in 1997. They said that while the national trend has been to put more emphasis on standardized testing, the consortium has succeeded with less.

The consortium consists of 28 public high schools that require their students to complete portfolio reviews to graduate, rather than pass Regents exams. (Students must take the English Regents exam but no others.) Portfolio assessments require students to complete research papers, essays, and science experiments before defending their work orally in front of a panel of independent graders, who follow formal guidelines to assess the students.

“The consortium believes that learning is comprehensive, and assessments should be as well,” said Ann Cook, its executive director and the founding principal of one its member schools, Urban Academy.

Urban Academy and a handful of other schools in the consortium are screened and select students to attend. But most of the other schools do not, and overall, the schools serve black and Latino students, poor students, students with disabilities, and ELLs at rates that mirror the city average. According to the report, students enter the consortium schools with eighth-grade test scores a touch lower than the city average.

The consortium schools’ higher graduation rates could be explained away by the simple fact that their students encounter fewer state-imposed obstacles to graduation. Yet their students stay in college into their second year far more often than students across the state and country, according to the report.

Proponents of performance assessment say that’s because the tasks the students complete in consortium high schools are better preparation for college-level work than are assignments geared only to getting students to pass a Regents exam.

Performance assessment could soon find a place in more schools because of the Common Core, new learning standards that favor deeper dives into content areas and will bring new tests in several years, and because the state’s teacher evaluation law requires student performance to factor into teachers’ ratings. Performance assessments are seen as likely to provide at least some of the data to make those calculations.

The shifting tides have Department of Education officials publicly endorsing the consortium’s approach. “We’ve been supportive of the consortium and giving them resources to try to expand the number of schools that they’re working with because we’d like to see more schools included in that,” said Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky last week during a panel on college-readiness.

One school in the consortium, New Day Academy, closed this year because of poor performance. But at least one brand-new school, Harvest Collegiate High School, will be joining this fall.

Still, department officials warn that the city isn’t ready to switch to a performance-based assessment approach.

“In freeing up schools to have the ability to use those kinds of assessment, there’s a risk that it slips below the basic skills level that the Regents have,” Martin Kurzweil, the department’s accountability czar, said during a panel discussion Thursday. “So the supports have to be in place to ensure that our teachers know how to teach in a way that aligns to those kinds of assessments and they know how to create those kinds of assessments and use them effectively.”

Kurzweil added, “That’s our big task over the next few years. because pretty soon a lot of assessment in New York City and New York State and the rest of the country is going to look more like that than like the current Regents.”

The consortium’s report is below.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

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