Slamming the Exam

At Success Academy schools, high-octane test prep leaves nothing to chance

PHOTO: Success Academy
A "Slam the Exam" rally for Success Academy students

Before the state math tests began this week, the Success Academy charter school network had left nothing up to chance.

School leaders had provided teachers with color-coded agendas with precise instructions for every few minutes of test days, along with boxes of supplies that might come in handy — from pencils and tissues to extra clothes for students and deodorizing powder to sop up vomit.

Teachers had been taught the proper way to hand out tissues during the test (pass the student a new sheet first, then use a second sheet to grab the used tissue). They knew to set their classroom temperatures to between 66 and 70 degrees, and to call each student’s family every evening before a test to remind them of the next morning’s exam.

On test days, some teachers would take Success-funded cabs to pick up chronically late students (“Taxi Scholars,” as the agendas refer to them). Outside auditors, who had already observed the network’s practice tests, would monitor the real exams to safeguard against charges of test-rigging.

But students were perhaps the most prepared of all. They had spent weeks taking practice tests modeled off the actual state exams. They starred in test “dress rehearsals,” where exact testing conditions were simulated. Some had even practiced tearing perforated reference sheets out of mock test booklets.

If history is any guide, the preparation will pay off. Last year, Success students’ pass rates on the new and much harder state exams beat those of every other city charter school network and far surpassed the city and state averages.

Success says test prep is a minor factor in its students’ remarkable scores. More important, it insists, are the network’s curriculum, teacher training, and longer school days.

“No amount of test preparation will enable a child to do well on these challenging tests without extremely high-quality instruction,” Success CEO Eva Moskowitz said in a statement.

Success is the city’s largest and most polarizing charter school network, and its high test scores have been the subject of passionate debate. Critics have said the network has boosted its scores by “counseling out” hard-to-teach students (a charge Success denies) and by not replacing many students who leave.

What’s less debatable is that outstanding test scores are crucial for Success Academy. They have enabled the network to attract an army of well-heeled, results-oriented donors. And recently they bolstered the network’s case when it appealed to lawmakers for support after the city blocked some Success schools from moving into public buildings.

To ensure it achieves those results, Success invests an extraordinary amount of time and resources into preparing students for the state exams, according to interviews and conversations with current teachers, parents, and students from several Success schools, as well as a review of internal Success documents.

Many of those interviewed said the work leading up to the test was rigorous and conceptual, a far cry from rote “drill-and-kill” prep, and a valuable use of school time considering the high stakes attached to the exams.

“I’m all for it,” said Maria Torres, who drives her daughter from Staten Island to a Success school in Harlem each day. “The more instruction they get, the more prepared and confident they are.”

But others said the intensive test preparation distorts students’ view of the purpose of education and detracts from learning not directly related to the exams.

“I think it’s important that if they’re going to be tested on something, they feel prepared to do it,” said one teacher who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity. “But I don’t think it needs to come at the expense of authentic learning, which is what’s happening.”

At Success, students encounter tasks modeled off those on state tests as early as the fall, when they are given network-produced packets with reading passages and questions during sessions called “Close Reading Mastery.” Around winter break, they take full practice tests. By March, students answer test-inspired questions every morning, and teachers report their daily scores to the network.

In the weeks leading up to the exams, test preparation dominates the school day.

Before the English tests, that means eight reading passages with questions every day at one school. In the lead-up to the math tests, another school’s schedule showed students taking a two-hour practice test in the morning and another two-hour practice test in the afternoon, with some students scheduled to spend recess going over wrong answers.

Teachers said they lose their own prep periods during these weeks and students miss out on academics — from reading about current events to studying history — that are not assessed by the state exams. To pack in more test prep, the network holds Saturday sessions and put off spring break until after the math exams. In the afternoons after the tests this week, students will solve practice problems modeled after the next day’s exams.

Some teachers and parents said all this preparation builds up students’ work ethic and tenacity, but others worried that it skews their sense of what it means to be successful.

“Their self worth is all tied to their performance on this test,” a teacher said.

The network goes to great lengths to keep students happy as they are chipping away at all this work.

Teachers receive boxes of prizes — basketballs, bracelets, magnets, puzzles, socks — to reward students based on their effort and scores on the daily practice tests. Other students earned Popeyes chicken, pizza, or trips to the park. One school paid a street vendor to pass out ice cream to students after last Saturday’s “Slam the Exam” prep session.

Students receive daily reports with their practice-test results. Those who achieve top scores have their headshots posted on a hallway bulletin board, called the “3s and 4s Club,” in one school. But low-scoring students also see their results posted in school hallways. Those students, along with ones who made careless mistakes or were not invested in the practice tests, miss recess to attend extra work sessions, called “Effort Academy” or “Revision Academy.”

“If there’s noticeable areas for improvement, then we work on it,” said one teacher. “Not as a punishment, but as an opportunity to improve.”

Success also finds ways to keep teachers invested.

The network pays for catered lunches for staff during the weeks of test preparation and issued every teacher new Converse sneakers. (The shoes come in handy on test days, since Success teachers are required to wear soft-soled shoes to reduce noise.)

More galvanizing are the daily, network-wide emails that rank teachers by name based on the percentage of their students who passed that morning’s practice tests. Multiple teachers said they were motivated by the rankings — “You want to have your name on the top of that list,” said one — and noted that top-ranked teachers share tips and materials.

Those rankings may carry consequences: A bottom-ranked teacher was told she is being demoted from a lead to an assistant teacher, according to two teachers who learned of the move. They find the ranking system demoralizing.

“I constantly feel criticized and under pressure,” one said.

Kevin Heffel, Success Academy’s instructional chief, said in a statement that the network believes educators should be held accountable for “preparing our scholars to succeed,” and that it provides teachers “extensive professional development and support to help them meet this goal.”

Heffel added that Success considers test preparation a matter of equity.

“Minority children have historically been denied educational opportunities because they haven’t been adequately prepared for standardized testing,” he said. “We owe it to our kids to make sure they’re ready.”

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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.