testing takeaways

At long last, New York released state test results. Here’s how NYC students fared.

PHOTO: Getty Images/Sathyanarayan

New York City students continued to significantly outperform their peers in other big cities in the state on average, according to scores released Wednesday — news that anxious parents are receiving weeks later than usual.

While the city’s proficiency rate in English edged out the state average, city students lagged behind those statewide in math. Overall, the scores show a jump for the city from the previous year, but the rise can’t necessarily be attributed to greater achievement, as changes in the test format make such year-over-year comparisons hard to gauge.

The latest results show that 46.7 percent of city students were proficient in English and 42.7 percent were proficient in math on tests given to students in grades 3 through 8. That’s compared to 45.2 percent and 44.5 percent, respectively, statewide.

Still, gaping disparities remain between the city’s white students and their disadvantaged peers. In English, 34 percent of black students were proficient, and in math 25.5 were. Almost 10 percent of students who are learning English as a new language passed reading exams and 18 percent passed math exams. By contrast, white students had a 66.5 percent pass rate in English and 63.6 pass rate in math.

Overall, scores continued an ostensible upward climb for city students: Pass rates increased by 6 percentage points in English and almost 5 percentage points in math.

But the uptick comes with a big caveat from education officials and testing experts who cautioned against making year-over-year comparisons. “No matter how hard the temptation, you cannot do it,” said MaryEllen Elia, state commissioner of education.

The problem, analysts say, is that this year’s test was significantly altered compared to last year’s. The usual three-day window was condensed into just two days of testing.

“That does not mean this year’s scores aren’t meaningful — they are,” Elia said.

Critics and champions of the city administration often seize on the scores to claim education policies are moving in the right direction — or need a revamp. Even as state officials warned that the results weren’t “apples-to-apples,” Mayor Bill de Blasio released a statement Wednesday saying: “We now have a school system that is steadily improving before our eyes. We’ve seen steady gains across our students’ state math and English exams, proving that equity and excellence go hand in hand. I salute our students on their progress.”

At a press conference later in the afternoon, the mayor tempered his tone significantly, saying the scores represent a “reset” moment on which to base future progress. (He chalked up his comments in the press release to “a little over-exuberance among the writers,” though the quote was attributed to him.)

The results “now give us a baseline to work from in the years ahead. We have a new chancellor and a new leadership team at the DOE,” de Blasio said at P.S. 204 The Morris Heights School in the Bronx.

The exams are often seen as high-stakes and shape perceptions of education policy and even individual schools. How much weight they’ll have going forward remains uncertain, as a portion of a law that would tie test scores to teacher evaluations is currently on hold in New York, and the state is moving toward using other metrics to judge school performance under the Every Student Succeeds Act, which was passed by Congress in 2015.

For Carranza, the scores represent both a political opportunity and challenge. The tests will remain the same for the next two years, allowing the kind of year-to-year analysis not possible this time, and he will likely be judged on future outcomes. Since arriving in April, he has shuffled the school system bureaucracy in an attempt to support schools and principals better and hired a chief academic officer to focus on what happens in the classroom.  

“These scores are indicative of the sustained progress we have made in classrooms, schools and districts across all five boroughs,” Carranza said in a statement. “We have much more work to do to close opportunity gaps, and we will continue our push to deliver the equitable and excellent education that every New York City public school student deserves.”

State officials blamed the change in test format for delaying the release of the scores, which are nervously anticipated by families seeking to apply to competitive middle schools and high schools in New York City. Many of its most selective schools consider test scores in admissions decisions, and knowing the results can help students realistically weigh their options.

The state moved to a shorter testing window — and dialed down the potential penalties to schools — to soothe the concerns of parents, students, and educators who worry about the impact of standardized tests. It seems the change wasn’t enough to win over many more test-takers, as the number of students refusing the exams across the state stayed about the same. This year, 18 percent opted-out, one percentage point lower than last year. Although a far smaller percentage of New York City students have opted out of the exams in the past, the proportion that chose to skip either the English or math exam this year inched up from 4 percent to 4.4 percent. 

State officials said the “vast majority” of students who refused tests came from average or low-need school districts.

“It’s encouraging to see that test refusals are continuing to decline,” Elia said about the statewide results.

Charter schools statewide and in New York City outperformed traditional public schools on the exams. In English, 57.3 percent of city charter school students showed proficiency, while 59.6 percent did in math.

We will bring you more news and analysis as we crunch the latest numbers. Stay tuned for updates, and email us any questions you’d like us to answer in our reporting: ny.tips@chalkbeat.org

School choice

Denver judge blocks school transportation provision added to Colorado law

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Sam Boswell, 7, all bundled up in his winter clothes, splashes his way to the school bus on May 12, 2010.

A Denver judge struck down a provision of a bill related to the education of youth in foster care that would have removed barriers to transportation for all students.

The transportation provision was an amendment added by Republican lawmakers late in the 2018 session. Soon after the bill was signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper, several Colorado school districts and the associations that represent them filed a lawsuit to block it.

In a ruling issued Friday, Denver District Court Judge David Goldberg found that the amendment violated rules in the Colorado constitution that require every bill to have a clear title that explains what the bill is about and to deal only with one subject.

The bill’s title was “Improving Educational Stability for Foster Youth,” and it seeks to improve graduation rates for foster youth by requiring child welfare officials and school districts to work out transportation to the student’s home district when that’s in the child’s best interest. It also creates flexibility around graduation requirements when students do change schools. Foster youth have the lowest four-year graduation rates in the state, much lower even than homeless youth and students whose parents are migrant workers.

The tacked-on language was added in the Republican-controlled State Affairs committee five days before the end of the session. It said that a school board “may furnish transportation” to students who are enrolled in the district but who live in another district. The provision applies to all students, not just those who are in the foster system. It also struck language from an existing law that requires the consent of the school district from which students are being bused.

The amendment language came straight from a separate bill about expanding school choice that had been killed by Democrats in the House the day before.

Many school districts opposed the transportation provision because they feared it would open the door for better-off districts to poach students and undermine the meaning of school district boundaries. Advocates for school choice argued the provision was good policy that would allow more students, especially those from low-income families, take advantage of opportunities. They also argued, apparently unconvincingly, that it was required for implementation of the foster youth portions of the bill.

The Donnell-Kay Foundation intervened in the case in defense of the law. (The Donnell-Kay Foundation is a funder of Chalkbeat. You can read our ethics policy here.)

In his ruling, Goldberg said this specific issue has never been litigated in Colorado before, and he relied in part on rulings from other states with similar requirements. Bills with broad titles, he wrote, can be construed broadly and encompass a range of issues as long as they have some connection to the title. But bills with narrow titles must be construed narrowly — and this amendment didn’t make the cut.

“The subject of House Bill 18-1306 is out-of-home placed students and efforts to ensure educational stability,” Goldberg wrote, while the amendment’s subject “is all students, with no qualifiers, conditions, restrictions, or reference to out-of-home placed students. … House Bill 18-1306 seriously modifies transportation for all students and is hidden under a title relating exclusively to out-of-home placed students.”

Goldberg ruled that the amendment is “disconnected” from the rest of the bill, and neither lawmakers nor the public had enough notice about its inclusion before passage.

That leaves the rest of the foster youth bill intact and advocates for expanded school choice facing an uphill battle in a legislature in which Democrats, who are more likely to give priority to school district concerns, now control both chambers.

This isn’t an abstract issue. In 2015, more than 150 students who lived in the Pueblo 60 district but attended school in higher-performing Pueblo 70 lost access to transportation when the city-based district ordered its neighbor to stop running bus routes through its territory.

Online Shopping

Jeffco launches universal enrollment site to make school choice easy

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat
Students in a social studies class at Bear Creek High School in Jeffco Public Schools read about Genghis Khan.

Starting Monday, parents in Colorado’s second-largest district will be able to shop online for schools and, once enrollment opens in January, apply to as many as they like.

The launch of Enroll Jeffco, following the path paved by Denver Public Schools, means some 86,000 students and their parents won’t have to go to individual schools during the work day and fill out paper forms if they want to apply somewhere other than their neighborhood school.

The online system cost about $600,000 to develop and operate for this school year. The district expects it to cost about half of that annually going forward.

Universal enrollment systems allow parents to compare and apply to traditional district-run schools, district schools with specialized programming or models, known in Jeffco as options schools, and charter schools with a single application on the same website. Universal enrollment systems are a key component of what some call the “portfolio model,” in which districts oversee a range of school types and parents vote with their feet. They’ve been controversial in places, especially when coupled with aggressive school accountability policies that lead to school closures.

In Jeffco Public Schools, which is more affluent than many Denver metro area districts, officials see the move to a single, online enrollment system as a valuable service for parents.

“Regardless of how people feel about it, we operate in a competitive school choice environment, both inside the district and outside the district,” Superintendent Jason Glass said. “That compels us to make thinking about that transaction, making people aware of the options and enrolling in our schools, as frictionless and easy as possible.”

Colorado law requires schools in any district to admit any student for whom they have room and for whom the district can provide adequate services, after giving priority to students who live in the district. But many districts still require paper applications at individual schools, and schools in the same district might not have the same deadlines. A recent report by the conservative education advocacy group Ready Colorado found that parents who use school choice are more likely to be white, middle- or upper-class, and English-speaking than the state’s student population. The authors argue that districts should streamline the enrollment process and consider providing transportation to make choice more accessible.

Jeffco isn’t rolling out new transportation options yet, but it might use data from the enrollment process, including a parent survey that is built into the website, to see if that’s desired or feasible. And officials believe strongly that the new online enrollment system will open up more opportunities for low-income parents and those who don’t speak English.

The website will provide information in the district’s six most commonly spoken languages and should be optimized for use on mobile phones. All parents will be required to use the system to express their preferences, including the majority of parents who want to stay in their neighborhood school, and the district is planning significant outreach and in-person technical assistance.

We believe that if all parents are participating, it improves equity,” Glass said. “One of the things we struggle with is that upwardly mobile and affluent parents tend to be the ones who take advantage of school choice. We want all of our schools to be available to all of our families. We think being able to search through and make the enrollment process as easy as possible is an equity issue.”

But critics of universal enrollment systems worry that the ease of application will encourage parents to give up on neighborhood schools rather than invest in them.

Rhiannon Wenning, a teacher at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School, said the link between charter schools and open enrollment systems makes her distrustful, even as many of her students are using the choice process to stay at the school after rising home prices pushed them into other parts of the metro area.

“I understand parents want what is best for their child, but part of that as a citizen and a community member is to make your neighborhood school the school that you want it to be,” she said, calling the universal enrollment system an attack on public schools.

Joel Newton of the Edgewater Collective, which provides community support for lower-income schools in the eastern part of the district, said Enroll Jeffco will give the district much better data on which to base decisions, but he worries that Title I schools, which serve large numbers of students from low-income families, won’t be able to compete.

“With an online system like this, it really needs to be a level playing field,” he said. “And in my area, I’d much rather have resources going to curriculum and instructional aides to catch kids up than going into marketing support. But other areas can do that and they have these big, well-funded PTAs.”

Until now, parents have had to seek out information on each school’s website. The online portal starts by asking parents to enter their address and the grade in which they’re enrolling a student. It then displays the parents’ neighborhood school, with an option to explore alternatives. Each school page has extensive information, including a short narrative, descriptions of special programs like math, arts, or expeditionary learning, the school mascot, and the racial and economic breakdown of the student population. The intent, district spokesperson Diana Wilson said, is to let schools “tell their own story.”

Parents can select as many schools as they want when enrollment opens Jan. 22, and they’ll learn in mid- to late February where they got in. However, they have to commit within five days to one school, ending a practice by which parents in the know kept their options open through the summer months. District officials say this will help them plan and budget better.

Kristen Harkness, assistant director for special education in Jeffco, served on the steering committee that developed the system, and she’s also a parent in the district. Even as a district employee who thought she knew the process inside and out, she managed to miss a deadline for her son to be considered at another middle school.

She said that choosing between schools isn’t a matter of which schools are better but which are a better fit for a particular student. In her case, her son could have stayed at a K-8 or transferred to a combined middle and high school, with each option presenting a different kind of middle school experience. He’s happy at the K-8 where he stayed, she said, but parents and students should have the chance to make those decisions.

The new universal enrollment system is poised to give more families that chance. In the course of the rollout, though, there may be a few glitches.

“We’re doing all we can to look into the future and foresee any technical problems and design solutions to that proactively,” Glass said. “That said, this is our first time, and we ask for people’s patience.”