score scrutiny

Charter school where English scores spiked scored own state exams

The New York City charter school that made the largest gains on state English tests also made an unprecedented decision to grade its own students’ exams.

English scores surged at Teaching Firms of America Charter School this year, with proficiency rates doubling from nearly 20 percent in 2014 to nearly 40 percent this year — a crucial one for the school to prove itself. Meanwhile, the school also opted out of an external scoring system meant to curb score inflation and bring charter school scoring in line with how exams from district schools are graded.

No one has accused the Brooklyn school of improper testing or grading practices. State officials say they have not received any complaints of cheating; city officials said a monitor visited the school during the tests to ensure compliance with testing rules; and the school’s math scores actually fell.

Founding principal Rafiq Kalam Id-Din II said he was confident that the English gains are an accurate reflection of how far his students have come.

“The growth is the result of authentic instruction,” he said. “That’s what happens when you don’t do test prep.”

Still, Teaching Firms’ unique position as the only school to grade its own state tests this year raises questions about why charter schools are not held to the same scoring standards as other schools in the city.

All New York City schools are responsible for scanning multiple-choice answers into a centralized data system. To ensure consistent scoring and prevent cheating, the city has long kept district schools from scoring their own students’ written responses, instead requiring that schools send teachers to centralized scoring centers to grade tests without knowledge of who took them.

Charter schools, the privately run but publicly funded schools that are exempt from some state regulations, aren’t allowed to participate. They are considered their own districts by the State Education Department and therefore have to handle their own scoring.

But for years, the city’s charter school sector has run a program that mimics the district’s and includes a third-party vendor to monitor the grading in real time. Schools invariably opt in so that their all-important scores aren’t vulnerable to challenges.

“Most charters are going to jump at joining the consortium because it’s a way to both have credibility in your scores, but also ease your mind that there are professionals who know how to do this,” said Constance Bond, executive director of St. Hope Leadership Academy, a charter school in Harlem.

Id-Din said he decided to allow his staff to score students’ answer sheets because he wanted teachers to better understand the state’s test-development and grading process and because it saved money for the school.

The choice was above-board, he said, because state regulations leave charter schools free to decide how to score their students’ tests.

“We took advantage of what every other school like ours can take advantage of,” said Id-Din, who is also a member of Chalkbeat’s informal reader advisory board.

Still, no other charter school scored its own tests, according to the New York City Charter School Center, which sponsors the test scoring consortium that allows schools to outsource their scoring duties. “To the best of my knowledge, no school has self-scored other than Teaching Firms” in the decade since the consortium was created, said James Merriman, the head of the Charter Center.

Teaching Firms’ unilateral decision to score its own tests also reveals a new gap in the state’s ability to oversee charter schools. Although city charter schools have not traditionally opted to grade their own tests, the Teaching Firms case shows that schools are allowed to do so without oversight.

The city education department, which directly oversees TFOA and recently vowed to work proactively to stamp out academic impropriety, declined to comment on the school’s decision. A spokesman confirmed that the department sent monitors to the school during testing but did not oversee the school’s grading process.

Teaching Firms is under pressure to convince the department that it should remain open. In 2014, less than one in five third-grade students earned an English score indicating proficiency. The scores were low enough that city reviewers refused to renew the school’s charter for a full five years, and instead gave it just over two years to show improvement or face closure.

The latest test results indicate that Teaching Firms students are making fast progress in English, though not in math. While the average proficiency rate at city charter schools inched up from 28 percent to 29 percent in English, the students who were in TFOA’s third-grade class in 2014 saw their proficiency rate shoot up 30 points this year. The school took a step back on the math tests, with its proficiency rate dropping from 28 percent to 22 percent.

Sol Stern, a contributing editor for City Journal who has written about test security issues for more than a decade, said those English gains appeared to deserve further scrutiny.

“It could be the students are just starting out behind,” Stern said. “But it happens so rarely that it just doesn’t seem to pass the smell test.”

making the rounds

Tennessee’s new education chief ‘very confident’ that online testing will be smooth in April

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee's new education commissioner Penny Schwinn (second from left) met with Douglass High School students and Shelby County Schools leaders Friday.

As Tennessee’s new education commissioner wrapped up her second week on the job by visiting four schools in Shelby County, Penny Schwinn said she feels “very confident” the state has learned from its mistakes in online testing.

During the more than three-hour ride to Memphis on Friday, Schwinn said she continued to pore over documents showing evidence that the corrections the state department staff have put in place will work.

“I feel very confident that our team has looked into that,” she told reporters in a press conference after meeting with students. “They’re working with the vendor to ensure that testing is as smooth as possible this year.” Currently the state is working with Questar, who administered TNReady online last year.

She also said the state’s request for proposals from testing vendors, which is already months behind, will be released in about two weeks.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
From left: John Bush, principal of Douglass High School; Penny Schwinn, Tennessee Education Commissioner; and Joris Ray, interim superintendent for Shelby County Schools.

“No later than that,” she said. “We hope and expect to have a vendor in place before the end of the fiscal year,” in late June.

The day Schwinn was hired, she said getting state testing right would be her first priority. Three years of major technical failures have severely damaged the trust educators and parents have in the state’s test, TNReady. It is the main measure of how schools and teachers are doing, but state lawmakers exempted districts from most testing consequences in 2018.


From Schwinn’s first day on the job: Tennessee’s new education chief wants to ‘listen and learn’ with school visits


Prior to talking with reporters, Schwinn said she heard “hard-hitting questions” from several students at Douglass High School in Memphis about what the state can do to improve education. Schwinn has said she will visit Tennessee schools throughout her tenure to ‘listen and learn’ by talking to students and educators.

Reporters were not allowed to attend the student discussion with Schwinn and some Shelby County Schools leaders.

Douglass High entered Shelby County Schools’ turnaround program, known as the iZone, in 2016 and saw high academic growth in its first year. But test scores fell this past year as the state wrestled with online malfunctions.

Timmy Becton Jr., a senior at Douglass High, said he hopes for fewer tests and more projects to demonstrate what a student has learned. Those kind of assessments, he said, can help a student connect what they are learning to their daily life.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee’s new education commissioner met with students at Douglass High School and Shelby County Schools leaders.

“We figured it would be a different way to measure and see how much knowledge a student really has on a specific subject,” he told Chalkbeat after meeting with Schwinn during a student roundtable session. “It’s a good alternative to taking tests.”

He said he was “surprised and happy” to see Schwinn actively seek student perspectives.

“I really think that’s the most important part because students are the ones going to school every day,” Becton said. “So, if you want to find a good perspective on how to solve a problem, it’s really great to talk to the people who are actively involved in it and the people who are actually experiencing these problems directly.”

The state’s annual testing window runs from April 15 to May 3.

School discipline

Michigan schools have expelled fewer students, but that may not be cause for celebration

PHOTO: Getty Images

Michigan schools have expelled far fewer students since the state enacted laws aimed at cutting back on expulsions. But an advocate who’s pushed for an end to zero-tolerance policies pointed out persistent problems and told elected state education leaders this week that, “We shouldn’t start celebrating yet.”

This is why: Peri Stone-Palmquist, executive director of the Ypsilanti-based Student Advocacy Center, told State Board of Education members that in the 18 months since the new laws took effect in 2017, expulsions have dropped 12 percent. But she’s concerned that too many school leaders don’t understand the law or are ignoring its requirements. And she believes some schools are finding other ways of kicking kids out of school without expelling them.

Michigan did away with zero-tolerance policies that had earned it a reputation for having some of the toughest disciplinary rules in the nation. In their place, lawmakers instituted new rules, such as requiring schools to consider seven factors — including a student’s age, disciplinary record, disability and seriousness of the incident — in making expulsion decisions.

“We have had districts and charters tell advocates that they would not consider the seven factors at all,” Stone-Palmquist said. Others aren’t sharing with parents and students how those seven factors were used. And she said there’s a general “lack of understanding of lesser interventions and the persistent belief that lengthy removals remain necessary.”

That’s a problem, she and others say, because of the negative consequences of kicking students out of school. Studies have shown that students kicked out of school are often missing out on an education and are more likely to get into trouble. Advocates also worry that expulsion exacerbates what they describe as a “school-to-prison” pipeline.

She said advocates are noticing that more students are receiving long suspensions, an indication that some schools are suspending students rather than expelling them. Hiding students in suspension data won’t work much longer, though. Michigan now requires schools to collect such data, which soon will be public.

Stone-Palmquist also said that some schools aren’t even going through the expulsion process, but simply referring students with discipline issues to “understaffed virtual settings.”

“Once again, the students who need the most get the least, and no one has to report it as an expulsion.”

Stone-Palmquist gave an example of a ninth-grader involved in a verbal altercation who was expelled for a long time for persistent disobedience, “despite our team lining up extensive community resources for him and despite the district never trying positive interventions with him.”

In another case, a fifth-grader was expelled for 180 days for spitting at another student who had done the same to them first. Stone-Palmquist said the seven factors weren’t considered.

“We were told at the appeal hearing that the student’s behaviors were too dangerous to consider lesser interventions.”

She and Kristin Totten, an education lawyer for the ACLU of Michigan, provided board members with statistics that some members found alarming. Totten noted that an ACLU review of data collected by the federal government shows that for every 100 students in Michigan, 38 days are lost due to suspension. In Oakland County, 26 days are lost for every 100 students. In Macomb County, it’s 35 days and in Wayne County, it’s 55 days.

One child who’s experienced trauma for years was repeatedly suspended from multiple schools. The 11-year-old has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. This school year, she’s been suspended for 94 days.

“Never once were the seven factors mentioned to her mother,” Totten said.

Stone-Palmquist asked board members to consider recommendations, including developing a model student code of conduct that incorporates the new rules, partnering with the advocacy center to request an attorney general’s opinion on what districts are required to do, and expanding data collection.

Tom McMillin, a member of the state board, asked whether the state should consider financial penalties, such as withholding some state aid.

“I’m a fierce advocate for local control. But in areas where the incentives might not be there to do what’s right … I’m fine with the state stepping in,” McMillin said.

Board member Pamela Pugh said she appreciated the push for the board to “move with great speed.” She said the data and stories provided are “compelling, as well as convincing.”

Stone-Palmquist said that despite her concerns, there have been some successes.

“Districts that used to automatically expel 180 days for fights, for instance, have partnered with us to dramatically reduce those removals with great outcomes,” she said. “We know alternatives are possible and that they actually help get to the root of the problem, prevent future wrongdoing and repair the harm.”

The Detroit school district didn’t come up during the hearing. But on the same day Stone-Palmquist presented to the state board, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti gave a presentation to his local board of education about what’s happened in the months since the district embarked on an effort to improve school culture by revising the student code of conduct, hiring deans for each school, and providing training on alternative discipline methods.

The bottom line: Vitti said that schools are booting out dramatically fewer students and greatly increasing alternative methods of discipline. In-school suspensions are up, given the push against out-of-school suspensions.

But the changes have also raised concerns. Some school staff have said the new rules are tying their hands. Vitti said it will take time for the changes to take hold, and he outlined some areas that need to improve, including more training.