test prep

Tweaked promotion policy part of broader prep for lower scores

Changes to the Department of Education’s student promotion policy are just one part of a sweeping offensive to prepare schools and families for tougher state tests and lower scores this spring.

In April, elementary and middle school students will take state math and reading tests that are aligned for the first time to new learning standards known as the Common Core. Education officials have warned that the state is likely to see scores plummet as a result, as they did in Kentucky — by 30 percent — when that state first administered Common Core-aligned tests.

In an email to principals on Friday, Chancellor Dennis Walcott offered reassurance that schools and students would not be penalized just because they post lower test scores this year. And he encouraged principals to use parent conferences over the next few weeks to steel parents for the drop-off.

“While we have been preparing for the implementation of the Common Core since before the state adopted the standards in 2010, the changes will start to hit home for many families when elementary and middle school students take state tests aligned to the Common Core this spring,” Walcott wrote. “We anticipate that these new tests will be more difficult to pass, at first.”

He reassured principals that students would still be admitted to schools based on their scores relative to other students, and that schools’ annual letter grades would continue to be generated using algorithms that heavily favor progress over performance. Raw scores won’t matter, except to create a new baseline against which to measure future growth, Walcott said.

And he also asked principals to send home letters to parents explaining the new promotion policy, which NY1 reported on Tuesday. Under the policy, students will no longer be held back if they do not pass their state math and reading tests. Instead, students with the lowest 10 percent of scores will have to attend summer school to avoid repeating their grade.

Walcott said today that the department selected that proportion after examining summer school enrollment in the past and assessing schools’ capacity for the future. Last year, 9 percent of students were required to attend summer school.

“As a system we have to respond, but we also have to take a look at our ability to handle a certain number of students for summer school and take a look at the past,” he said. “It’s basically based on analysis of information from the past and factoring in the unknown.”

The promotion rules are not actually all that different from are ones that the city informally adopted in 2010, when the state raised the scores needed to for students to be deemed proficient. While more students were required to attend summer school that year, many students did not hit the state’s proficiency bar but were promoted nonetheless.

The letter going home to parents offers advice about how to talk to children about the tests, which are likely to feel more challenging than the state tests students have taken in the past.

“Reassure [your child] that a score that is different from past years will not mean that your child isn’t learning or working hard enough,” Walcott wrote. “The new standards are a big change for our students and our teachers, and teachers have been working hard to support students during the transition. Fully adjusting will take time.”

Walcott’s complete letter to principals is below, followed by his letter to parents.

Dear Colleagues,

Over the last few years, thanks to the work you have been doing to transition to the Common Core standards, we have made significant progress toward our goal of ensuring that all of our students are ready to take on the challenges of college and careers.

While we have been preparing for the implementation of the Common Core since before the State adopted the standards in 2010, the changes will start to hit home for many families when elementary and middle school students take State tests aligned to the Common Core this spring.

We anticipate that these new tests will be more difficult to pass, at first. But I believe that this change is important: our new standards set high expectations for student learning. The new State tests will give us a new baseline for measuring our students’ growth. They will provide us with information about where students are on the path to graduating from high school prepared for college and a good job—and will support our efforts to do more for our students. With time, support, and hard work from you and your staff, I have full confidence that our students will rise to the challenge.

I am writing today to share some information about what the new State tests will mean for your students, teachers, and school, and to ask you to share this information with your school community:

  • Promotion Policy: New York City will align promotion standards to the Common Core over time. We expect that the number of students attending summer school this year will be similar to last year. In the past, decisions about summer school were made based on estimates of each student’s performance level on the State tests. This year, because the tests are new, we cannot predict how the State will determine performance levels. Instead, we will look at students’ raw scores. Students with the lowest scores will be recommended for summer school. This document describes the changes that will occur this year in more detail and answers questions you may have.
  • Admission to Screened Schools: Students who earn the highest scores—even if those scores are lower than in past years—will still have access to screened middle and high schools.
  • Teacher Evaluation: The State’s model for measuring teacher growth includes protections to keep teachers’ evaluations from being impacted by changes to the tests. Still, until we reach an agreement with the UFT, teachers will continue to be evaluated using the existing Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory system that does not include students’ test scores. Although this spring’s test scores may not impact evaluations this year, these scores will be factored into teacher evaluations when an agreement is reached.
  • School Accountability: The Progress Report also controls for changes in State tests by measuring each school’s performance in comparison to other schools, keeping our accountability system fair. Schools whose test scores are lower than in past years can continue to receive high Progress Report grades if their students’ performance and progress are higher relative to other schools, particularly schools serving similar students. The distribution of elementary and middle schools’ grades will also remain fixed, so there will not be an increase in the percentage of schools that receive low grades.

Our school communities need to know about the promise these standards hold to help broaden students’ options as they approach adulthood. They also need to know about the new tests and to have their questions addressed. The work you have done over the past several years positions you well for these critical conversations. It is important that your school community understand the challenges ahead and feel confident in your school’s ability to manage this change. With the support of your network, please take the following steps:

  • In advance of parent-teacher conferences:
    • discuss these changes with teachers and provide an opportunity for them to share their concerns.
    • backpack home this letter to parents of students in grades 3–8; translated versions are available here.
  • During parent-teacher conferences: make copies of the letter available to families.
  • Before spring recess begins in March: bring your school community together to share this information and answer questions about the changing tests. These conversations could take place during parent-teacher conferences, curriculum nights, PTA and SLT meetings, or other events.

There are many resources available to support you in this effort, both on the Common Core Library and on EngageNY. These include sample activities you can use to help parents better understand the contrasts between old and new State tests, PowerPoint presentations that explain the Common Core shifts, and videos and other materials for parents—including a recording of a webinar I led recently about the Common Core. We will continue to update the Common Core Library with additional resources that I encourage you to share with parents.

Again, as you speak with your school community in the coming weeks, I encourage you to communicate that this spring’s tests are new and will be more challenging, and to make clear that you will continue to support your students in reaching these higher expectations that focus on the skills students need to succeed. I appreciate your leadership in this effort.

Sincerely,

Dennis M. Walcott

Counselor Comeback

Years after laying them off, Newark brings back attendance workers to track down absent students

PHOTO: Newark Public Schools
Superintendent Roger León (center) with more than 40 new attendance counselors the district has hired.

A new school-attendance squad is on the job in Newark, ready to phone families and track down truant students.

More than 40 new attendance counselors and truancy officers made their official debut this week — part of a campaign by Superintendent Roger León to curb rampant absenteeism in the district. The linchpin of León’s approach is the rehiring of the attendance workers, who were laid off nearly six years ago amid questions about their effectiveness.

The employees — some new and some returning — will help craft school attendance plans, contact families, and bring truant students back to class with the help of Newark police officers.

They have their work cut out for them: Nearly a quarter of students have already missed about two weeks or more of school since September, according to district officials.

In his drive to boost attendance, León also launched a back-to-school campaign last fall and eliminated some early-dismissal days when students tend to skip class. At a school board meeting Tuesday, León said those efforts have resulted in fewer “chronically absent” students who miss 10 percent or more of school days for any reason. So far this school year, 23 percent of students are chronically absent, down from 30.5 percent during the same period the previous school year, he said.

“Right now, we’re in a really, really good place,” León told the board. “Having hired these attendance officers will get us where we need to go.”

A long to-do list awaits the attendance workers, who will earn between $53,000 and $95,531, according to a district job posting. They will create daily attendance reports for schools, call or visit families of absent students, and make sure students who are frequently out of school start showing up on time.

They will also be tasked with enforcing the state’s truancy laws, which authorize attendance officers to arrest “habitually truant” students and allow their parents or guardians to be fined. Newark’s attendance counselors will gather evidence for potential legal actions, deliver legal notices to students’ homes, and appear in court “when required,” according to the job posting.

The district is also establishing a new “truancy task force” to track down truant students, as required by state law. The task force will include both district employees and police officers who will patrol the streets searching for truants to transport back to school.

The teams will be “going up and down every one of our corridors and getting kids in school,” León said Tuesday, adding that they will eventually be provided buses.

Criminal-justice reform advocates across the country have criticized state laws, like New Jersey’s, which criminalize truancy. As a result of such laws, parents can face fines or even jail time and students can be put on probation or removed from their homes. Meanwhile, a 2011 study found that truant students who faced legal action were more likely to earn lower grades and drop out of school than truant students who did not face those sanctions.

While truancy laws may be on the books, districts have discretion in how they enforce them.

Peter Chen, a policy counsel for Advocates for Children of New Jersey, has studied absenteeism in Newark and said he did not know how the district’s new attendance workers would carry out the law. But he cautioned against “punitive strategies,” such as issuing court summonses or suspending frequently absent students, which can temporarily boost attendance but eventually drive students further away from school.

“Once the school is viewed as the enemy, as somebody who is out to get the student, it’s incredibly difficult to rebuild a trusting relationship,” he said. “And what we see time and again is that a trusting relationship between a school and a family or student is a critical component to building a school-wide attendance strategy that works.”

Superintendent León declined to be interviewed after Tuesday’s board meeting, saying he would answer written questions. As of Wednesday evening, he had not responded to those questions.

At the meeting, he did not rule out the possibility of the district’s truancy officers making arrests. But he said the police officers’ job was not to arrest truant students, only to protect the attendance workers.

“I need to make sure that any staff members that we hire are safe,” he said.

In 2013, then-Superintendent Cami Anderson laid off all 46 of the district’s attendance counselors. She attributed the decision to budget constraints and limited evidence that the counselors had improved attendance.

The district shifted the counselors’ responsibilities to school-based teams that included administrators, social workers, and teachers. Critics said the district was expecting schools to do more with less, and the Newark Teachers Union — which had represented the attendance counselors — fought the layoffs in court. An administrative law judge sided with the union, but then-State Education Commissioner David Hespe later overturned the decision.

León, who became superintendent in July, promised to promptly restore the attendance counselors. However, his plans were delayed by a legal requirement that the district first offer the new jobs to the laid-off counselors, some of whom had moved out of state. By the beginning of February, all the positions had been filled and, on Friday, León held a roughly 90-minute meeting with the new attendance team.

To create lasting attendance gains, experts advise schools to consider every aspect of what they do — their discipline policies, the emotional support they provide students, the quality of teaching, and the relationship between staffers and families. Simply outsourcing attendance to designated employees will not work, they warn.

Superintendent León appears to agree. In an interview last year, he said he expects all school employees to join in the work of improving attendance.

“The last thing that needs to happen is for people to walk away saying, ‘Oh, attendance is going to be solved because now we have the attendance counselors,’” León said. “No, everyone has to worry about attendance.”

Newark Enrolls

After changes and challenges, Friday’s deadline to enroll in Newark schools finally arrives

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
A student fills out an information sheet at Central High School's booth at the citywide school fair in December.

Newark families have just a few hours left to apply to more than 70 public schools for next fall.

At noon on Friday, the online portal that allows families to apply to most traditional and charter school will close. After that, they will have to visit the district’s enrollment center. Last year, nearly 13,000 applications were submitted.

The stakes — and stress — are greatest for students entering high school. Each year, hundreds of eighth-graders compete for spots at the city’s selective “magnet” high schools, which many students consider their best options.

This year, those eighth-graders have to jump through an extra hoop — a new admissions test the magnets will use as they rank applicants. District students will sit for the test Friday, while students in charter and private schools will take it Saturday.

That’s news to many parents, including Marie Rosario, whose son, Tamir, is an eighth-grader at Park Elementary School in the North Ward.

“I don’t know nothing about it,” she said. District officials have been tight-lipped about what’s on the new test, how it will factor into admissions decisions, or even why introducing it was deemed necessary.

Students can apply to as many as eight schools. Tamir’s top choice was Science Park, one of the most sought-after magnet schools. Last year, just 29 percent of eighth-graders who ranked it first on their applications got seats.

“I’m going to cross my fingers,” Rosario said.

Students will find out in April where they were matched. Last year, 84 percent of families applying to kindergarten got their first choice. Applicants for ninth grade were less fortunate: Only 41 percent of them got their top choice, the result of so many students vying for magnet schools.

This is the sixth year that families have used the online application system, called Newark Enrolls, to pick schools. Newark is one of the few cities in the country to use a single application for most charter and district schools. Still, several charter schools do not participate in the system, nor do the vocational high schools run by Essex County.

Today, surveys show that most families who use the enrollment system like it. However, its rollout was marred by technical glitches and suspicions that it was designed to funnel students into charter schools, which educate about one in three Newark students. Some charter critics hoped the district’s newly empowered school board would abolish the system. Instead, Superintendent Roger León convinced the board to keep it for now, arguing it simplifies the application process for families.

Managing that process has posed challenges for León, who began as schools chief in July.

First, he ousted but did not replace the district’s enrollment chief. Then, he clashed with charter school leaders over changes to Newark Enrolls, leading them to accelerate planning for an alternative system, although that never materialized. Next, the district fell behind schedule in printing an enrollment guidebook for families.

Later, the district announced the new magnet-school admissions test but then had to delay its rollout as León’s team worked to create the test from scratch with help from principals, raising questions from testing experts about its validity. Magnet school leaders, like families, have said they are in the dark about how heavily the new test will be weighted compared to the other criteria, including grades and state test scores, that magnet schools already use to rank applicants.

Meanwhile, León has repeatedly dropped hints about new “academies” opening inside the district’s traditional high schools in the fall to help those schools compete with the magnets. However, the district has yet to hold any formal informational sessions for families about the academies or provide details about them on the district website or in the enrollment guidebook. As a result, any such academies are unlikely to give the traditional schools much of an enrollment boost this year.

District spokeswoman Tracy Munford did not respond to a request Thursday to speak with an official about this year’s enrollment process.

Beyond those hiccups, the enrollment process has mostly gone according to plan. After activating the application website in December, the district held a well-attended school fair where families picked up school pamphlets and chatted with representatives. Individual elementary schools, such as Oliver Street School in the East Ward, have also invited high school principals to come and tell students about their offerings.

American History High School Principal Jason Denard said he made several outings to pitch his magnet school to prospective students. He also invited middle-school groups to tour his school, and ordered glossy school postcards. Now, along with students and families across the city, all he can do is wait.

“I’m excited to see the results of our recruitment efforts,” he said. “Not much else is in my control — but recruitment is.”