test trap

Tougher diploma rules leave some students in graduation limbo

Philip Yeung with his daughter, Tiffany, who has tried to pass a single Regents exam 10 times since the state raised the minimum pass score.
Philip Yeung with his daughter, Tiffany, who has tried to pass a single Regents exam 10 times since the state raised the minimum pass score.

If Jessica Fuentes had better luck with timing, she might be in college now.

But because she was a high school senior in 2012, the year the state raised the minimum exam scores required to graduate, she missed the new cutoff score on a few tests, failed to receive a diploma, and withdrew from the college she had planned to attend.

Today, after many unsuccessful attempts to pass the tests, she is juggling three jobs while studying for a high school equivalency certificate.

“I did four years of high school,” said Fuentes, 20. “What a waste of my time.”

Fuentes is one of an untold number of city students ensnared by the state’s efforts to raise graduation standards. Those efforts, meant to ensure that high school graduates are prepared for college, have in some cases stranded students in graduation limbo, where because a single test score is a few points too low, they must set aside plans for work and college to take taxpayer-funded test-prep classes.

Betty Rosa, a member of the state Board of Regents that set the higher standards, said the change was never meant to keep otherwise solid students from graduating due to a few points on a test.

“I think there are arguments for rigor,” Rosa said. “But at the same time, as we move through these issues, we really have to take into account what are the unintended consequences.”

Starting last year, students must pass five state Regents exams with grades of 65 or higher. Previously, students could earn a 55 or higher on some of the tests and still graduate, but with a so-called local diploma. That option now is only available to students with disabilities or ones who successfully appeal their scores.

Fuentes hit the old standard but not the new one on each of the exams. Another student from her senior class at Francis Lewis High School in Queens has taken a single Regents exam 11 times without passing — including every opportunity since missing her graduation last year. Under the old cutoff score, she, too, would have passed the test.

The student, Tiffany, asked that her last name be withheld so that potential employers and others would not be able to discover her struggle to graduate.

She said she has attended afternoon and weekend Regents-prep sessions, studied with a private tutor, taken online courses and watched instructional YouTube videos — all in the hopes of passing the global history and geography exam.

Meanwhile, she has had to pause her plans of attending college and becoming a nurse.

“These poor kids are being held back and their lives are on hold because they can’t get this diploma,” said Cristina Cotignola, a Francis Lewis guidance counselor. “As an educator, I hate this rule.”

Neither the state nor city education department could say how many students were blocked from graduating last year after falling on the wrong side of the new cutoff line.

The city’s four-year graduation rate declined by half a point last year: from 60.9 percent to 60.4 percent — a modest dip, but the first real decrease under Mayor Bloomberg. (The city also toughened how Regents exams are scored and limited makeup work last year for the first time.)

Abja Midha, project director for the nonprofit Advocates for Children, said the full impact of the rule change would not become clear for another year or so, when some students who narrowly missed the score cutoff stop trying to earn their diplomas and turn instead to GED classes or work — a risky route that could limit college choices and future wages.

The group estimates that statewide about 22 percent of each senior class — or some 48,000 students — might not graduate high school for a variety of reasons, from missing class credits to dropping out. A small subset of those students includes ones who met most graduation requirements, but scored too low on one or more Regents exams.

“Those are students who now do not have access to college or other careers,” Midha said.

Students who fail the state tests can retake them as many times as they like. To boost their odds of passing, they can attend city-funded Regents-prep classes until they turn 21.

At Francis Lewis, review sessions leading up to the test are available for the 20 or so students that failed exams last year due to the higher cutoff score. Tiffany, for one, returned last school year for global history tutoring every afternoon and five hours each Saturday morning — but still she couldn’t pass the test.

The global history exam — which covers several millennia of world history taught over two school years — is the most-failed Regents test. The state has considered overhauling the exam so that it would cover less content.

Tiffany’s father, Philip Yeung, argues that it makes little sense for the state to prevent Tiffany, a would-be nurse, from graduating high school on account of a history exam. It also seems unwise for the city to pour resources into her for an extra year or more also on account of a single test, Yeung added.

“I’d rather see them give that time and effort to a student that’s failing, who really needs it,” he said.

Students who come within three points of passing a Regents exam and meet several other criteria, including good attendance and passing grades, can appeal their scores on up to two tests. If a school-based appeal committee signs off, the students receive diplomas.

Neither Fuentes nor Tiffany has earned at least a 62 on the global history exam and so neither can appeal her score.

The Coalition for Multiple Pathways to a Diploma, which includes Advocates for Children, has called on the state to add non-test assessments — such as final projects or portfolios — as graduation options. It also urged the state to expand the number of tests and range of scores subject to appeal, and better publicize that process.

In the meantime, some students remain stuck.

Tiffany still exchanges text messages with her guidance counselor about retaking the Regents exam, but she has lost touch with most of her classmates who earned diplomas and moved on.

Now, after more than a year of fruitless tutoring and retesting, Tiffany has decided to start studying for her GED.

“What else can I do?” she said. “I’ve basically done everything I can, but nothing’s working.”

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

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.