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

IPS School Board Race 2018

Indiana teachers union spends big on Indianapolis Public Schools in election

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
IPS board candidate signs

The political arm of Indiana’s largest teachers union is spending big on the Indianapolis Public Schools board. The group donated $68,400 to three candidates vying for seats on the board this November, according to pre-election campaign finance disclosures released Friday.

The three candidates — Susan Collins, Michele Lorbieski, and Taria Slack — have all expressed criticism of the current board and the leadership of Superintendent Lewis Ferebee. Although that criticism touches on many issues, one particular bone of contention is the district’s embrace of innovation schools, independent campuses that are run by charter or nonprofit operators but remain under the district’s umbrella. Teachers at those schools are employed by the school operators, so they cannot join the union.

The trio was also endorsed by the IPS Community Coalition, a local group that has received funding from a national teachers union.

It’s not unusual for teachers unions to spend on school board elections. In 2016, the union contributed $15,000 to an unsuccessful at-large candidate for the Indianapolis Public Schools board. But $68,400 dwarfs that contribution. Those disclosures do not capture the full spending on the election. The three candidates endorsed by Stand for Children Indiana — Mary Ann Sullivan, Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, and Evan Hawkins — are likely getting significant unreported benefits.

Stand for Children, which supports innovation schools, typically sends mailers and hires campaign workers to support the candidates it endorses. But it is not required to disclose all of its political activity because it is an independent expenditure committee, also known as a 501(c)(4), for the tax code section that covers it. The group did not immediately respond to a request for information on how much it is spending on this race.

The candidates’ fundraising varied widely in the reporting period, which covered the period from April 14 to Oct. 12, with Taria Slack bringing in $28,950 and Joanna Krumel raising $200. In recent years, candidates have been raising significantly more money than had been common. But one recent candidate managed to win on a shoestring: Elizabeth Gore won an at-large seat in 2016 after raising about $1,200.

Read more: See candidates’ answers to a Chalkbeat survey

One part of Stand for Children’s spending became visible this year when it gave directly to tax campaigns. The group contributed $188,842 to the campaign for two tax referendums to raise money for Indianapolis Public Schools. That includes a $100,000 donation that was announced in August and about $88,842 worth of in-kind contributions such as mailers. The group has a team of campaign workers who have been going door-to-door for months.

The district is seeking to persuade voters to support two tax increases. One would raise $220 million for operating funds, such as teacher salaries, over eight years. A second measure would raise $52 million for building improvements. Donations from Stand for Children largely power the Vote Yes for IPS campaign, which raised a total of $201,717. The Indiana teachers union also contributed $5,000.

Here are the details on how much each candidate has raised and some of the notable contributions:

At large

Incumbent Mary Ann Sullivan, a former Democrat state lawmaker, raised $7,054. Her largest contribution came from the Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee, which donated $4,670. She also received $1,000 from Steel House, a metal warehouse run by businessman Reid Litwack. She also received several donations of $250 or less.

Retired Indianapolis Public Schools teacher Susan Collins, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $16,422. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $15,000. She also received several donations of $200 or less.

Ceramics studio owner and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Joanna Krumel raised $200. Her largest contribution, $100, came from James W. Hill.

District 3

Marian University Executive Director of Facilities and Procurement and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Evan Hawkins raised $22,037. His largest contributions from individuals were from businessmen Allan Hubbard, who donated $5,000, and Litwack, who donated $2,500. The Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee contributed $4,670 and web design valued at $330. He also received several donations of $1,000 or less. His donors included IPS board member Venita Moore, retiring IPS board member Kelly Bentley’s campaign, and the CEO of The Mind Trust, Brandon Brown.

Frost Brown Todd trial attorney and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Michele Lorbieski, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $27,345. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $24,900. She also received several contributions of $250 or less.

Pike Township schools Director of Information Services Sherry Shelton raised $1,763, primarily from money she contributed. David Green contributed $116.

District 5

Incumbent Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, an Indianapolis Public Schools parent, raised $16,006. Her largest contributors include Hubbard, who donated $5,000; the Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee, which gave $4,670 and web design valued at $330; and the MIBOR PAC, which contributed $1,000. She also received several contributions of $500 or less, including from Bentley.

Federal employee and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Taria Slack, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $28,950. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $28,500.

Innovation zone

Two more Denver schools win additional freedom from district rules

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki/Chalkbeat
Alex Magaña, then principal at Grant Beacon Middle School, greeted students as they moved between classes in 2015.

Two more Denver schools this week won more flexibility in how they spend their money and time. The schools will create a new “innovation zone,” bringing the district’s number of quasi-autonomous zones to three.

The Denver school board on Thursday unanimously approved the schools’ application to operate more independently from district rules, starting in January.

The new zone will include Grant Beacon Middle School in south Denver and Kepner Beacon Middle School in southwest Denver. The two schools are high-performing by the district’s standards and follow a model that allows students to learn at their own pace.

With just two schools, the zone will be the district’s smallest, though Beacon leaders have signaled their intent to compete to open a third school in the growing Stapleton neighborhood, where the district has said it will need more capacity. The district’s other two innovation zones have four and five schools each.

Schools in zones are still district schools, but they can opt out of paying for certain district services and instead spend that money on things that meet their specific needs, such as additional teachers or aides. Zones can also form nonprofit organizations with their own boards of directors that provide academic and operational oversight, and help raise extra dollars to support the schools.

The new zone, called the Beacon Schools Network Innovation Zone, will have a five-member board of directors that includes one current parent, two former parents, and two community members whose professional work is related to education.

The zone will also have a teacher council and a parent council that will provide feedback to its board but whose members won’t be able to vote on decisions.

Some Denver school board members questioned the makeup of the zone’s board.

“I’m wondering about what kinds of steps you’re going to take to ensure there is a greater representation of people who live and reside in southwest Denver,” where Kepner Beacon is located, asked school board member Angela Cobián, who represents the region. She also asked about a greater representation of current parents on the board.

Alex Magaña, who serves as executive principal over the Beacon schools and will lead the new zone, said he expects the board to expand to seven members within a year. He also said the parent council will play a key role even if its members can’t vote.

“The parent council is a strong influence,” he said. “If the parent council is not happy, that’s going to be impacting both of the schools. I don’t want to undersell that.”

Other Denver school board members questioned the zone’s finances and how dependent it would be on fundraising. A district summary of the zone’s application notes that the zone’s budget relies on $1.68 million in foundation revenue over the next 5½ years.

Magaña said the zone would eventually seek to expand to four schools, which would make it more financially stable. As for philanthropic dollars, he said the zone would work to ensure any loss of revenue doesn’t hurt the schools’ unique programs or enrichment.

“I can’t emphasize enough that it won’t impact the schools,” he said.

Ultimately, Denver school board members said they have confidence in the Beacon model and look forward to seeing what its leaders do with their increased autonomy.