'rigorous and realistic'

Some struggling New York City schools can lose ground and still hit performance targets

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio at Brooklyn Generation School — part of the Renewal program

Despite Mayor Bill de Blasio’s ambitious promise to transform struggling schools, some of New York City’s bottom-ranked schools can backslide this year and still hit new goals that the city has set for them.

For the first time, the city has told schools in its $582 million “Renewal” program to aim for test scores, graduation rates, or attendance rates that fall within a certain range, rather than hit a specific target. But some ranges include goals that are below the schools’ current levels.

For instance, Bronx Collegiate Academy posted a 67 percent graduation rate last year. This year, its city-issued goal is to land between 63.6 and 81.9 percent — meaning its graduation rate can go down and still fall within its target range.

At the Bronx’s J.H.S. 123, the goal is for students to earn an average score on the state English tests of between 2.3 and 2.45 — despite already achieving a 2.42 average last year. (Students must earn a 3 or higher on the 4-point scale to be considered proficient.)

The latest round of goals continues a pattern of modest targets for schools in de Blasio’s signature school-turnaround program, even as the city loads them with extra social services, extended hours, and bigger budgets. Some experts say the goals are appropriate for schools that started so far behind, and note that school turnaround can take years. But others say the goals set a low bar, and question whether they are designed to make it easier for the de Blasio administration to claim its pricey program was a success.

What’s more, the new goal ranges have created some confusion among school leaders about what they are expected to achieve and what will happen if they don’t.

“If [the goals] really are supposed to be guiding stars and shaping what schools are doing on a day-to-day basis,” said Teachers College professor Aaron Pallas, “fuzzy ranges with unclear accountability consequences is not the way to do it.”

The goals are one of the factors officials consider when deciding whether schools in the Renewal program have made sufficient progress or should instead be closed or merged with other schools.

But if they are meant to provide low-performing schools with clear targets and a sense of urgency, the new ranges have instead created some confusion. The city offered online trainings on the goals, but some school leaders remain unsure of what’s expected of them.

“What we’ve been told is: ‘You need to reach for the upper range of your benchmark,’ said an administrator at a Brooklyn Renewal school, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “It’s not a fixed number, so what’s good enough and what isn’t?”

Eric Ashton, the education department’s executive director for accountability, acknowledged that the new goal ranges had left some people confused.

Still, he defended them as “rigorous and realistic,” and said schools are expected to aim for the upper end of the range. The ranges are meant to encourage schools to focus on making progress rather than fixating on a single number, he added

“If you just have one number as a target then it’s all or nothing,” Ashton said. “We don’t want it to be all or nothing.”

The tweaks partially reflect the political dilemma the education department faces when assigning goals to the city’s lowest-performing schools: Overly modest goals could invite criticism that such small gains do not justify the program’s hefty price tag, while overly ambitious goals could set the program up for failure.

Yet despite their caution, officials have fallen into both traps.

Early goals they set for Renewal schools required such slight improvements that a top state official called them “ridiculous.” Still, many schools have failed to meet those goals, providing ammunition to some critics who say the program has been a costly disappointment.

Some schools have made strides, including a group of 21 “Rise” schools that officials say have made enough progress to begin transitioning out of the Renewal program. Pallas, the Teachers College professor, said that officials may have assigned achievable goals to the program’s remaining schools as a way to ease even more out — raising questions about the city’s long-term plans for the program.

“Setting low targets could allow the department to shift more of the schools to the Rise category, which is the declaring-victory category,” he said. “I think we’re all still wondering what the future of this program is going to be.”

Assessing assessments

New York legislators overhaul teacher evaluations, removing mandatory link to state test

PHOTO: Chalkbeat file photo
A New York City principal takes notes on her computer during classroom observation for new teacher evaluations.

State lawmakers easily passed a bill Wednesday that scraps the use of state tests when evaluating New York teachers, but even supportive lawmakers raised concerns about potential loopholes that could subject students to more high-stakes testing.

The union-backed bill is a reversal of a 2015 deal Gov. Andrew Cuomo reached with lawmakers, which tied teacher evaluations to performance on state testing, seen by many as a political move not rooted in education policy. Strong backlash over that deal led many families to opt out of state tests, and eventually led to a state moratorium on using certain state assessments for teacher evaluations.

The bill allows local districts and their teachers unions to decide what kind of assessments should be used to evaluate teachers and requires State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia to decide on a “menu” of alternative assessments for local districts.

The proposal, which now goes to Cuomo’s office for approval, jumps ahead of work the Board of Regents is attempting. Before the session started, the Board of Regents planned to extend the state-assessment moratorium by one year and created work groups to hash out the best policies for assessments and evaluations. Sen. Shelley Mayer, a Westchester Democrat and chair of the Senate education committee, said Wednesday she recognizes the Regents’ work, but “as legislators, we are doing what we are charged to do in making necessary changes in state law.”

“Since 2015, when these provisions were initially adopted, parents, teachers, and the legislature have — in a bipartisan way — have all recognized a flaw in this law,” Mayer said.

In a statement, Speaker of the Assembly Carl Heastie called the bill’s changes “common sense reforms” that will help teachers “prioritize the needs of their students.”

State Department of Education officials will “work to implement the new law” and will “continue to engage stakeholders in the process,” Emily DeSantis, a spokeswoman for the state education department said in an email.

The bill is not likely to have a drastic effect on New York City schools, since the district already chooses from a menu of local measures to evaluate teachers. United Federation of Teachers president Michael Mulgrew, who praised the legislation dismissed concerns about the bill leading to more testing, at least in New York City, because of how it already uses alternative local options.

“You should be active in making sure your school district is using performance indicators that are not tests, if you believe in that,” Mulgrew said.

Despite the bill’s passage — unanimously in the Senate — even supporters expressed concerns about allowing local districts to select their methods for evaluating teachers. What if another type of standardized test shows up on the “menu” that the state commissioner creates? Or, what if local districts decide they want to use more standardized tests?

“There are serious concerns that this bill will actually double the amount of testing (one tests for student achievement, the other teachers), while making it harder to compare across districts,” said Nathaniel Styer, a spokesman for teacher group Educators for Excellence, in a tweet.

When a similar question was raised on the Assembly floor, bill sponsor Assemblyman Michael Benedetto doubted the chances that local districts would agree to more testing.

Wary lawmakers also raised concerns about the bill not going far enough to decouple state assessments from teacher evaluations, formally called Annual Professional Performance Reviews or APPR.

The New York State Allies for Public Education, a coalition of parents and teachers who oppose standardized testing, believes that this law would subject students to more tests, a view shared by Sen. Robert Jackson, a Harlem Democrat. Jackson and Queens Democrat Sen. Jessica Ramos both voted to support the bill nonetheless, but cautioned that it “does not go far enough” to eliminate the use of assessments completely.

“We have an opportunity to take a couple more weeks before budget season  begins in earnest to really workshop these ideas,” Jackson said. “With so much riding on reforming APPR, we owe it to students, teachers, parents, and other  advocates to get this one right.”

measuring up

Gateway is only Memphis charter school flagged as low-achieving on district scorecard. How did your school do?

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman/Chalkbeat
Gateway University is already at risk of closure after a Shelby County Schools investigation found a slew of misconduct at the high school.

Most Memphis schools improved in academic achievement and student growth in the second edition of Shelby County Schools “scorecard.”

About two-thirds of 186 district and charter schools improved their score on the district’s tool that helps parents examine school-level data and compare it with other Memphis-area schools in Tennessee’s largest district.

The district grades each school on a 1 to 5 scale, with 5 being the most favorable. The tool relies on state data on test scores, academic growth, graduation rates, ACT scores, and other factors like attendance and suspension rates. But the district’s scorecard differs from the state’s report card in that it only compares Memphis-area schools with each other. The state compares the district’s schools with others across Tennessee.

The scorecard is also the district’s main measurement of charter schools, which are managed by nonprofits using public funds. Only one charter school, Gateway University, fell below a 2, the district’s threshold for charter schools to remain in good standing. The school scored 1.64.

None of the high school’s students performed on grade level in math on the state’s test TNReady. Less than 2 percent scored proficient in English, making it the worst performing of 54 charter schools in the district.

Gateway University, now in its second year, is already under investigation for a slew of accusations including awarding students grades for a nonexistent class, hiring an employee who did not clear a background check, and having an inactive governing board. Shelby County Schools administrators have recommended the school board close the charter school. The board will likely hold a hearing Tuesday afternoon and vote that evening.

Last year, the district flagged seven low-performing charter schools at risk of closure, but all have improved academics and other measures enough this year to escape the district’s watchlist.

However, the state uses a different yardstick and has placed four of those charter school on its list of lowest performing schools. The school board delayed a vote in October to close those schools and has not released a new date for a decision. (The other three schools either closed, converted to a different governing model, or are still in operation.)

Even if those charter schools didn’t improve, the district could not have used last year’s state test scores as a factor in closing them. A series of technical failures of the online test led state lawmakers to ban use of the scores in judging schools.

To view individual school report cards, search here.