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

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Sayonara, SESIS: New York City to scrap its beleaguered special education data system

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat

New York City is scrapping a special education data system that has frustrated educators since it launched nearly a decade ago.

The troubles of SESIS, as the city’s Special Education Student Information System is called, are well known. Since its launch in 2011, the system — which required over $130 million to build — cost the city tens of millions of dollars in settlements, at times malfunctioned more than 800,000 times a day, and made it difficult to track whether students with disabilities are getting the services they need.

Education department officials said they have been able to “stabilize” the system in recent years. But they also have concluded that an entirely different system is needed. On Friday, they announced that they would phase SESIS out and replace it with something new — at a cost and on a timeline that is not yet clear.

The announcement comes on the eve of a City Council hearing set for Monday where council members say they will press for more transparency about special education.

“It was originally designed as a document management system,” Lauren Siciliano, the education department’s Deputy Chief Operating Officer, said about SESIS. “Think more of a filing cabinet right now as opposed to being able to follow a student through the process.”

Special education teachers often spent hours navigating a maze of drop-down menus — inputting data such as whether they met with a student and for how long — only to experience error messages that erased their answers.

Megan Moskop, a former special education teacher at M.S. 324 in Washington Heights, said she once encountered 41 error messages in two hours. What’s more, she said, the system didn’t reflect the experiences she had with her students.

“At the end of the day, I would be expected to go in, mark that they are present, mark whether they made progress toward a goal,” Moskop said. “It’s very standardized.”

It is not yet clear how quickly the education department will phase SESIS out. Officials said the city would begin a multistage process of identifying a vendor to create a new system by the end of March, then would ask for more detailed plans by the end of 2019. An official purchasing process would happen after that, Siciliano said, meaning that construction of  a new system will not begin for well over a year. Families and educators would be consulted throughout, officials said.

Linda Chen, the department’s chief academic officer, said a new system would lead to tangible improvements for students with disabilities.

“I do think that if we have clear and reliable visibility into the data it would absolutely allow us to better serve our students,” Chen said.

Flaws with SESIS have made it difficult to know how well the city is serving students with disabilities. Because the system was not set up to communicate with other city databases, city officials have had to manually tabulate data across systems. And the annual reports that show whether students are receiving required services may not be accurate because of the system’s flaws, officials have warned.

The system’s glitches also made the user experience so cumbersome that teachers had to spend time on nights and weekends entering data. An arbitrator eventually ordered the city to pay over $38 million in teacher overtime.

Additionally, the system has sparked legal action. Former Public Advocate Letitia James filed a lawsuit claiming that SESIS was to blame for some children not receiving services as well as lost Medicaid payments. Between 2012 and 2015, according to the IBO, the city collected $373 million less in Medicaid reimbursements than officials projected.

Some advocates said that given SESIS’s troubled history, it makes sense to find alternatives.

“There has to be a strong data system in place,” said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “We are eager to see a better system to be put in place, but are really worried about that transition period.”

Advocates have also pushed the city to make the data SESIS tracks directly available to parents.

“We will absolutely be looking at that,” Siciliano said.

next steps

Charter schools racing to find new buildings as district ends their leases

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Escuela Avancemos will move to a new building.

At least two Detroit charter schools are racing against the clock to find new buildings for more than 500 students next fall after the city district decided not to renew their leases.

It’s the latest move in an ongoing effort by the Detroit Public Schools Community District to get out of the charter business, and it means another bout of uncertainty for schools that enroll hundreds of children in Detroit.

Leaders of GEE-Edmonson Academy and GEE-White Academy face the daunting challenge of finding new buildings before the start of the next school year. Another school, Escuela Avancemos, already found a new building. More schools, including Rutherford Winans Academy, have leases that expire this year, but their representatives did not return requests for comment on whether their lease was renewed.

Most students at the two schools run by Global Educational Excellence (GEE) walk every day, Superintendent Michael Conran said. If a new building can’t be found in those neighborhoods, the school’s would face new transportation challenges, casting doubt on their ability to maintain their enrollment.

“We were clearly not anticipating that the leases would not be renewed,” Conran said. “That news came pretty late, I believe it was after the New Year. That’s quite a notification to the boards in such a short period of time.”

The challenges for these schools don’t end there. The district could also decline to renew their charters for the GEE schools when they expire in June, potentially forcing them to find new backers as well as new buildings.

More than one charter school has already jumped ship. Escuela Avancemos, a small school in southwest Detroit, will begin the coming year in a new building and with a new authorizer, Central Michigan University. Officials had begun searching for a new building even before they were notified last month that their lease would not be renewed.

“For the protection of our school, we’ve had to take matters into our own hands to guarantee our future,” said Sean Townsin, principal at Escuela Avancemos.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti made clear soon after he took the helm of the district in 2017 that he believed the district’s resources should be channeled toward its own students, not toward charter schools.

He reiterated that position last year when the district severed its ties with a three-school network of charter schools, forcing it to scramble to find new buildings and a new charter. Parents were forced to choose between an extraordinarily long commute to the new site and making an unwanted switch to another school. Enrollment was cut in half.

Supporters of the move pointed out at the time that those schools had been district schools until they were spun off by state-appointed emergency managers. In a city with lots of school options and few quality schools, they argued, some consolidation is necessary.

Most charters in Detroit are overseen by Michigan’s public universities, but 10 schools are supervised by the Detroit district.

A handful of those schools also rent their school buildings from the district, putting them in a particularly vulnerable position should the district decide that it would rather not support charter schools — its chief competitors for students and state funding.

In a statement about those schools, Chrystal Wilson, a spokeswoman for the district, said the the charter schools could eventually be replaced with district schools.

“Now that we have the leadership to rebuild the district, we need to review and maximize our property assets. This means possibly re-using currently leased schools for new DPSCD schools, replacing older buildings with high repair costs, or adding a school in an area where facility usage and class sizes are high where another traditional public school does not exist. We understand and accept if district charters are leaving for other authorizers.”

No matter the district’s plans, Conran said the Global Educational Excellence schools would continue trying to serve students.

But he asked for transparency from the district and time to plan.

“I’m just simply waiting to hear from DPS any decisions they anticipate making in as timely a manner as we need to make sure we can continue to support these students and their families,” he said.