Critics call NY state’s plans to rate schools based on racial, ethnic group performance ‘dangerous’ and ‘confusing’

New York state’s proposed rating system for reporting on how well schools serve specific “subgroups” sends the wrong message, some advocates say, by creating uneven standards for students of different races, ethnicities and backgrounds.

Under the State Education Department’s draft plan under the Every Student Succeeds Act, schools would receive a rating of 1 through 4 for the academic achievement of each racial or ethnic subgroup of students, as compared to other students in the same subgroups statewide. While regulations under the No Child Left Behind law tracked achievement data by subgroup as well, this is the first time the data will be converted into a rating and presented on every school’s report card.

The subgroups would remain the same as under NCLB: Asian or Pacific Islander, black, Hispanic, Native American, multiracial or white. Students could also be classified as English language learners, low-income, and/or having disabilities. In addition to subgroup scores, the schools would also receive an overall score for the performance of their students compared to all students across the state.

State Education Department officials said the new subgroup ratings, based largely on test scores, are meant to encourage accountability. With each subgroup assigned a performance level, it will be clear how each subgroup in a particular school is performing relative to state goals. It will also allow the state to use measures of “interim progress” individualized for each subgroup, the officials said.

But critics say this system has major drawbacks. Ian Rosenblum, executive director of EdTrust-NY, noted the methodology could create “uneven expectations for student performance,” as the same student test scores that could result in a 2 for the all-students group could generate a 4 for black or low-income students. The ratings, he said, would have no consistent or fair value, and would signal to parents and schools that there are different standards for different groups of students.

“It is extremely dangerous,” Rosenblum said. “If the main information parents have is a dashboard with all these ratings, if they see a 4, they should be confident 4 means a high level of performance. But it doesn’t. It just means better performance than schools with the same subgroups of students.”

Rosenblum acknowledged that the state has reasonable goals: revealing how well schools serve particular subgroups, such as English learners or students with disabilities. But he said the new rating system would “create more problems than it solves.”

Diana Noriega, chief program officer at the Committee for Hispanic Children and Families, expressed concern with how the ratings would be communicated to parents. Noriega works closely with parents who do not speak English as their first language — and who often have difficulty understanding the reports and information coming from their children’s school and the city’s education department.

“Think of a parent who is not a native speaker who is also accustomed to getting a level grade for their student, and so they assume the 4 is overall performance,” Noriega said. “Now, you are going to present what seems to be the same data but is not actually the same data. That is confusing.”

Though she does not question the state’s motivation, she said she and her organization will continue to push for the information to be well-described in reports and made easy to understand for parents. The state should track how each subgroup is performing, Noriega said, as it did under No Child Left Behind, but the score presented to parents should be the overall summative school score and not just a score in the context of that subgroup.

Department officials said the state does not yet know what the school dashboards will look like, but that the department is currently working on developing the design.

They acknowledged the negative feedback from advocates. “Some groups have expressed concern that because the long-term goals for subgroups are different, performance at the different levels are not comparable for the different subgroups,” education department officials said. “However, we believe that once persons understand that Level 4 means that this is a high performance for this subgroup of students, we believe this should not be an issue.”

A revised draft of the plan will be provided to the state’s Board of Regents at its July meeting, and the final plan will be acted on by the Regents at their September meeting, according to department officials.

Time crunch

Specialized high schools lawsuit could delay admissions decisions, New York City says in court filings

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Asian-American parents and community leaders gathered in Brooklyn to learn about a lawsuit against part of the city's plan to integrate specialized high schools.

New York City students may have to wait longer than usual to learn where they’ve been accepted to high school as the city prepares for a ruling in a lawsuit challenging integration efforts, according to court records filed Wednesday.

The city asked Judge Edgardo Ramos to rule by Feb. 25 on a preliminary injunction to block admissions changes aimed at enrolling more black and Hispanic students in the city’s prestigious but segregated specialized high schools.

A decision would be needed by then in order to meet the “latest feasible date to mail offer letters,” which the city says would be March 18 given the tight timeline around the admissions process.  The delay would apply to all students, not just those vying for a seat at a specialized high school. 

“DOE is mindful that a delay in the mailing of high school offers will increase anxiety for students and families, cause complications for those students considering private school offers, and require specialized high schools and non-specialized high schools to reschedule and restaff open houses,” the letter said.

A spokesman for the education department said the city will “communicate with families when a final offer date has been determined.” Letters were originally scheduled to be sent by March 4.

Filed in December, the lawsuit against the city seeks to halt an expansion of the Discovery program, which offers admission to students who scored just below the cutoff on the exam that is the sole entrance criteria for specialized high schools. The Discovery expansion, slated to begin this year, is one piece of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to diversify the elite high schools.

Asian-American parents and community organizations say the expansion unfairly excludes their children. Asian students make up 62 percent of enrollment at specialized high schools, but comprise only 16 percent of the student body citywide.

The suit calls for a preliminary injunction, which would put the Discovery expansion on hold while the case winds its way through the courts — and would disrupt the admissions cycle already underway for eighth-graders enrolling in high school next year. The process of matching students to specialized high schools was scheduled to begin this week, the city’s letter states.

The plaintiffs wrote a letter supporting the city’s timeline for a decision on the preliminary injunction, saying their aim is to stop the proposed admissions changes “before they can have the anticipated discriminatory effect.”

Hitting pause on the Discovery program expansion would mean the education department has to recalculate the cutoff score for admission to specialized high schools, consult with principals, work with the test vendor to verify scores, and generate offer letters to send to students, city attorney Marilyn Richter wrote in a letter to the judge.

The education department “has never made such a significant course adjustment midstream in the process before,” she wrote.

Education Inequalities

Is Michigan ready for a ‘grand bargain’ to improve its struggling education system?

PHOTO: Lori Higgins/Chalkbeat
Teresa Weatherall Neal, superintendent of the Grand Rapids school district, speaks during a panel discussion that also featured, from left, Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti and former U.S. Education Secretary John King.

A new political dynamic in Lansing has put Michigan in a position to potentially see the kind of education transformation that helped catapult Massachusetts to its status as the top-performing state in the nation, says a former U.S. Secretary of Education.

That bit of optimism from John King, who served as education secretary from 2016 to 2017 and is now the president and CEO of The Education Trust, came after nearly three hours of sobering discussion during an event Wednesday about the need to address inequities in education in Michigan.

Several times, King used the term “grand bargain” to describe what Michigan needs. It’s a term many Detroiters will remember from the Detroit bankruptcy and the deal that was a key part of getting the city out of bankruptcy.

As it relates to education, the term “grand bargain” has been used to refer to the bipartisan agreement struck more than two decades ago in Massachusetts that had broad buy-in from business and education groups, teachers, and parents, to improve academic achievement. The gist: The state invested more money in schools. In return, standards and accountability were increased.

King said Michigan is poised to reach the same consensus and invest more money in education, in particular investing money more equitably so the highest-need students are getting the most funding. He said there needs to be a thoughtful approach to accountability, as well as more investments in teacher preparation and support.

He sees it happening because of new leadership at the state level, including Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and new Republican leaders of the House and Senate.

“This is a moment where the new leadership in Lansing could come together … and it could be truly transformative.”

The event Wednesday, which took place at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, was organized by the Education Trust-Midwest, a Royal Oak-based education advocacy and research organization. The topic was inequities in education and the need to provide equitable opportunities for children regardless on where they live.

Amber Arellano, executive director of the organization, said Michigan ranks 43rd out of 47 states for the funding gap between poor and wealthy school districts.

“Students and families pay the price for this under-investment,” Arellano said.

She said the experiences of states like Massachusetts that have seen striking improvement provide hope for Michigan because they show transformation can happen over five to 10 years.

Michigan has been falling behind other states in performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a national exam that tests a representative sample of students in each state. The state’s performance, in fact, has shown little to no improvement over the last decade.

“We rise and we fall together. In Michigan’s case, we’re falling together,” Arellano said.

The audience at the event’s two panel discussions also heard from speakers such as Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of the Detroit school district. He said that often, when K-12 educators talk about the need for more resources, “you see the rolling eyes of lawmakers.”

But, Vitti said, “It takes funding to educate children. And it takes more funding to educate children who enter … with more challenges.”

Panelists agreed that Michigan is at a pivotal moment because of its new leadership. And they came up with solutions they think will make a difference.

Melody Arabo, outreach specialist at and former Michigan Teacher of the Year, said the state needs to address a lack of resources for educators. She said that in a classroom of 30 students, a teacher can have some reading at the kindergarten level and others “who can read better than I can.”

The materials that teachers have “are not meeting those needs. Teachers spend an average of 12 hours a week going online looking for resources.”

David Meador, vice chairman and chief administrative officer of DTE Energy, said Michigan should look at what successful states have done and adopt best practices. Just as important, he said:“Stick with it. Don’t change it every year.”

For King, the solution to improving schools is simple and starts at a young age.

“If Michigan is going to improve, it will need a surge in high quality early learning that prepares every child for kindergarten or beyond,” King said.