accountability accountability

In reports, validation for city's high school gains, but not its data

An independent research group with access to a trove of the city’s education data concluded that most of the Bloomberg administration’s claims of high school progress are credible.

But in a different report commissioned by a nonprofit group that manages some city high schools, researchers found that the city’s tools for evaluating schools do not treat schools with higher-need students fairly.

The two reports come as the Bloomberg administration concludes a three-term spree of policy changes meant to spur improvement in the city’s high schools. The spree included dozens of school closures and the creation of hundreds of new high schools, along with accountability metrics such as the annual “progress report” to make school performance transparent. Whether to continue the policies and accountability measures will be a major choice facing the next mayor. Mayor Bloomberg has said that those efforts have moved more students toward graduation, but critics have pointed to low “college readiness” statistics to argue that students are leaving high school without the skills needed for success afterwards.

According to New York University’s Research Alliance for New York City Schools, which produced the first report, both claims are true. The group, which has unfiltered access to city schools data through a deal with the city Department of Education, examined the performance of 900,000 high school students between 1999 and 2011 and found that students of all backgrounds had posted achievement gains, including an 18-point increase in the four-year graduation rate  — but that few graduated college-ready and large demographic performance gaps remained.

Compared to other analyses of high school student achievement, the report looked at a longer time period and examined results by more subgroups of students.

The report dug into students’ performance data from their middle school years to see how they progressed in high school. Often, eighth-graders with the lowest attendance and test scores saw the largest gains in graduation. For instance, students who scored in the lowest 20 percent on the state’s eighth-grade math and English tests graduated 4 percent of the time in 2001. In 2007, that rate was 22 percent, a 400 percent increase. Chronically absent eighth-graders graduated 9 percent of the time in 2001; they graduated 25 percent of the time in 2007.

That progress stalled when compared to the higher standard of the state’s college readiness metric. Students who struggled with attendance and on their test scores in eighth grade had almost no chance of being “college ready.” Overall, readiness rates rose by just eight percentage points — from 13 percent to 21 percent — between 2001 and 2007, even as graduation rates increased by more than twice that margin.

At a panel about the Research Alliance’s report on Wednesday, Department of Education Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky pushed back against the formula used to measure college readiness. The report defined readiness as graduating with a Regents diploma and scores of 75 and 80 in the English and math Regents exams, the same standard that the state uses. But Polakow-Suransky said a stronger gauge of success is what percentage of students are still enrolled after four semesters of college.

“You actually see scores closer to 34 percent of students,” Polakow-Suransky said. He added, “But even with 35 percent of the kids that’s way too low.”

One tool that the city created to measure high school performance, the progress report, was explicitly designed to give schools credit for helping low-performing students move forward, even if they did not hit proficiency standards. But in the second analysis out this week, commissioned by the nonprofit New Visions, NYU researchers found that the controls the Department of Education employs to make fair comparisons across schools are not adequate.

More specifically, the researchers found that schools are more likely to post low grades if they have many poor students, students of color, or students with disabilities. The finding confirms recent research by the Independent Budget Office, a city office charged with studying Department of Education data.

On the flip side, the report also finds that some schools with many high-achieving students might also have been penalized for not hitting “mathematically impossible growth targets.”

Like the IBO report, the New Visions report argues that the progress report methodology is an improvement over simply comparing schools’ student performance without looking at how quickly students are advancing. Still, the researchers recommended several changes to the progress reports’ methodology, should the next mayor continue using the system to generate scores for each school each year.

“We hope … that this report and the above recommendations will spark a productive conversation about how the high school Progress Report can be improved to better meet its objectives,” wrote the researchers, led by Sean Corcoran, a professor who has also studied the city’s principal training institute and the “value-added” ratings that the city briefly assigned to teachers.

The purpose of the Research Alliance’s high school analysis, according to Executive Director James Kemple, was to lay the groundwork for series of papers on high schools. One paper will examine how high schools have been affected by changes in enrollment patterns, which critics believe led to the downfall to many schools selected for closure. Another will study high schools that “beat the odds” at narrowing the racial and socioeconomic achievement gap and identify what they’re doing differently.

The Alliance — whose board includes teachers union president Michael Mulgrew — received a $3 million grant in 2008 from the Gates Foundation, which also helped former schools chancellor Joel Klein expand the city’s portfolio of small schools before abandoning the strategy several years ago. Kemple said the group’s research was nonpartisan and applied the most rigorous methods for data management, organization, and analysis.

“Our agreements with the Department of Education within NYU is to publish things as we see them, not as we’re dictated to, and nobody can restrict our publications,” he said.

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.”


Jubilation, and some confusion, as Denver schools begin their post-strike recovery

PHOTO: Eric Gorski/Chalkbeat
Lupe Lopez-Montoya greets students at Columbian Elementary School on Thursday after Denver's three-day teacher strike.

Lupe Lopez-Montoya got the text message at 6:15 a.m. The strike was over, the colleague who’d been keeping her up to speed on news from her union told her.

And so as district and teachers union officials celebrated their deal at the Denver Public Library, Lopez-Montoya on Thursday resurrected her regular commute to Columbia Elementary School, the northwest Denver school where she’s the longest-serving tenured teacher.

For the past three days, Lopez-Montoya had stayed out of school as Denver Public Schools and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association sparred over how teachers in Denver are paid. She still had unanswered questions about the future. But first, it was time to greet students.

One girl ran across the sidewalk to give a hug. “Ms. Montoya’s back,” she shouted, burying her face in the teacher’s side.

Lopez-Montoya began to welcome students into the building. “Line up and you can go get breakfast,” she told one boy. “I’m happy you’re here today.”

The moment kicked off what was a not-quite-normal day in Denver schools. With a deal coming just an hour before some schools were due to start for the day, teachers and families had little time to adjust their plans. The district also had too little time to reopen early childhood classes that have been closed all week; those will reopen on Friday, officials said.

Building principals got an email around 7 a.m. telling them that the strike was over and that many teachers would be coming back to work. In some buildings, central office staff and substitutes who had been filling in for teachers were already on site when teachers returned to work. And some students who commute long distances didn’t get the word in time to go to schools.

By early afternoon, about 81 percent of teachers in district-run schools had shown up to work, and about 83 percent of students had, according to Denver school district spokesman Will Jones.

In the parking lot outside Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy, a west Denver elementary school, teachers still clad in the red of their cause gathered in the parking lot to walk in together. Asked what the mood was, reading intervention teacher Denise Saiz said, “Relief!” and her colleagues responded with an enthusiastic “Yes!”

“We’re really excited to get back to the kids,” said fifth grade teacher Emily Mimovich.

While strike participation was high at the school — it was founded with support from the state and local union as a teacher-led school — the teachers said they did not believe there would be hard feelings between those who walked and those who didn’t.

“We have such a good relationship,” said Reyes Navarro, who teaches Spanish to kindergarten and first-grade students. “We understand that you have to do whatever is right for you.”

Parents also said they were eager to have their children get back to school.

Sarah Murphy, who has a third-grader and a 4-year-old preschool student, said this morning was a “bit of a scramble, albeit a welcome one.” She had both children signed up for a day camp at the University of Denver and was unsure if she should send them to school or to camp because she wasn’t sure teachers would be back at school. Then she got word that camp was canceled for both children — but Denver Public Schools preschools are still closed.

“We were left trying to figure out what to do with our ECE4 since they were still closed,” she wrote to Chalkbeat. “We know how hard this has been on everyone, but this morning proved that the ECE program was the hardest hit, short notice every step of the way. We very much look forward to tomorrow when both are back in their normal school routines.”

Not everyone returned to school. Some teachers said they needed a day to collect themselves after an emotional experience. Judy Kelley, a visual arts teacher at Martin Luther King Jr. Early College, said she and many of her colleagues live too far away from the school to get there on short notice.

But the majority of teachers who went back to work Thursday describe positive experiences returning to their schools. Ryan Marini, a social studies teacher and football coach at South High School, called it the “best day” in 17 years of teaching.

Suzanne Hernandez, a first-grade teacher at Westerly Creek Elementary in Stapleton, said she and other teachers gathered to walk into school together at 7:45 a.m.

Teachers thanked the subs from central office who were in the building. They headed back to their roles in central offices.

Early in the morning, Hernandez sent a message to her students’ parents to let them know teachers would be back in school. The reaction from students as she greeted them was “overwhelming,” she said.

With the help of paraprofessionals who had prepared lessons, Hernandez said teachers were able to jump right back to where they left off last week.

As far as Valentine’s Day, that celebration will be pushed back until Friday afternoon, she said. For now, teachers are having their own celebration, happy to be back in the classroom.

“I think if there’s any sort of effect from the strike, it’s been a positive one,” she said. “It’s been a very unifying experience.”

Allison Hicks, a teacher at Colfax Elementary, said returning teachers were greeted with hugs, music, smiles and tears.

“After finding out an hour ago we were going back to work, I scrambled home to get ready,” she wrote to Chalkbeat. “I am exhausted, but so excited to be back with my students. This day won’t be normal, but knowing I did my part to put my students first is the best feeling to have.”

Kade Orlandini, who teaches at John F. Kennedy High School, said most of the teachers are back in her building, despite the short notice.

“Teachers were ready, and we are jumping right back into instruction,” she wrote. “Attendance seems lower than normal, but students who are here are ready to learn. The atmosphere in the school is very positive all around.”

What was your experience going back to school? What other questions do you have? Take our survey

Chalkbeat’s Ann Schimke, Erica Meltzer, and Yesenia Robles contributed reporting to this article.