test prep

Tweaked promotion policy part of broader prep for lower scores

Changes to the Department of Education’s student promotion policy are just one part of a sweeping offensive to prepare schools and families for tougher state tests and lower scores this spring.

In April, elementary and middle school students will take state math and reading tests that are aligned for the first time to new learning standards known as the Common Core. Education officials have warned that the state is likely to see scores plummet as a result, as they did in Kentucky — by 30 percent — when that state first administered Common Core-aligned tests.

In an email to principals on Friday, Chancellor Dennis Walcott offered reassurance that schools and students would not be penalized just because they post lower test scores this year. And he encouraged principals to use parent conferences over the next few weeks to steel parents for the drop-off.

“While we have been preparing for the implementation of the Common Core since before the state adopted the standards in 2010, the changes will start to hit home for many families when elementary and middle school students take state tests aligned to the Common Core this spring,” Walcott wrote. “We anticipate that these new tests will be more difficult to pass, at first.”

He reassured principals that students would still be admitted to schools based on their scores relative to other students, and that schools’ annual letter grades would continue to be generated using algorithms that heavily favor progress over performance. Raw scores won’t matter, except to create a new baseline against which to measure future growth, Walcott said.

And he also asked principals to send home letters to parents explaining the new promotion policy, which NY1 reported on Tuesday. Under the policy, students will no longer be held back if they do not pass their state math and reading tests. Instead, students with the lowest 10 percent of scores will have to attend summer school to avoid repeating their grade.

Walcott said today that the department selected that proportion after examining summer school enrollment in the past and assessing schools’ capacity for the future. Last year, 9 percent of students were required to attend summer school.

“As a system we have to respond, but we also have to take a look at our ability to handle a certain number of students for summer school and take a look at the past,” he said. “It’s basically based on analysis of information from the past and factoring in the unknown.”

The promotion rules are not actually all that different from are ones that the city informally adopted in 2010, when the state raised the scores needed to for students to be deemed proficient. While more students were required to attend summer school that year, many students did not hit the state’s proficiency bar but were promoted nonetheless.

The letter going home to parents offers advice about how to talk to children about the tests, which are likely to feel more challenging than the state tests students have taken in the past.

“Reassure [your child] that a score that is different from past years will not mean that your child isn’t learning or working hard enough,” Walcott wrote. “The new standards are a big change for our students and our teachers, and teachers have been working hard to support students during the transition. Fully adjusting will take time.”

Walcott’s complete letter to principals is below, followed by his letter to parents.

Dear Colleagues,

Over the last few years, thanks to the work you have been doing to transition to the Common Core standards, we have made significant progress toward our goal of ensuring that all of our students are ready to take on the challenges of college and careers.

While we have been preparing for the implementation of the Common Core since before the State adopted the standards in 2010, the changes will start to hit home for many families when elementary and middle school students take State tests aligned to the Common Core this spring.

We anticipate that these new tests will be more difficult to pass, at first. But I believe that this change is important: our new standards set high expectations for student learning. The new State tests will give us a new baseline for measuring our students’ growth. They will provide us with information about where students are on the path to graduating from high school prepared for college and a good job—and will support our efforts to do more for our students. With time, support, and hard work from you and your staff, I have full confidence that our students will rise to the challenge.

I am writing today to share some information about what the new State tests will mean for your students, teachers, and school, and to ask you to share this information with your school community:

  • Promotion Policy: New York City will align promotion standards to the Common Core over time. We expect that the number of students attending summer school this year will be similar to last year. In the past, decisions about summer school were made based on estimates of each student’s performance level on the State tests. This year, because the tests are new, we cannot predict how the State will determine performance levels. Instead, we will look at students’ raw scores. Students with the lowest scores will be recommended for summer school. This document describes the changes that will occur this year in more detail and answers questions you may have.
  • Admission to Screened Schools: Students who earn the highest scores—even if those scores are lower than in past years—will still have access to screened middle and high schools.
  • Teacher Evaluation: The State’s model for measuring teacher growth includes protections to keep teachers’ evaluations from being impacted by changes to the tests. Still, until we reach an agreement with the UFT, teachers will continue to be evaluated using the existing Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory system that does not include students’ test scores. Although this spring’s test scores may not impact evaluations this year, these scores will be factored into teacher evaluations when an agreement is reached.
  • School Accountability: The Progress Report also controls for changes in State tests by measuring each school’s performance in comparison to other schools, keeping our accountability system fair. Schools whose test scores are lower than in past years can continue to receive high Progress Report grades if their students’ performance and progress are higher relative to other schools, particularly schools serving similar students. The distribution of elementary and middle schools’ grades will also remain fixed, so there will not be an increase in the percentage of schools that receive low grades.

Our school communities need to know about the promise these standards hold to help broaden students’ options as they approach adulthood. They also need to know about the new tests and to have their questions addressed. The work you have done over the past several years positions you well for these critical conversations. It is important that your school community understand the challenges ahead and feel confident in your school’s ability to manage this change. With the support of your network, please take the following steps:

  • In advance of parent-teacher conferences:
    • discuss these changes with teachers and provide an opportunity for them to share their concerns.
    • backpack home this letter to parents of students in grades 3–8; translated versions are available here.
  • During parent-teacher conferences: make copies of the letter available to families.
  • Before spring recess begins in March: bring your school community together to share this information and answer questions about the changing tests. These conversations could take place during parent-teacher conferences, curriculum nights, PTA and SLT meetings, or other events.

There are many resources available to support you in this effort, both on the Common Core Library and on EngageNY. These include sample activities you can use to help parents better understand the contrasts between old and new State tests, PowerPoint presentations that explain the Common Core shifts, and videos and other materials for parents—including a recording of a webinar I led recently about the Common Core. We will continue to update the Common Core Library with additional resources that I encourage you to share with parents.

Again, as you speak with your school community in the coming weeks, I encourage you to communicate that this spring’s tests are new and will be more challenging, and to make clear that you will continue to support your students in reaching these higher expectations that focus on the skills students need to succeed. I appreciate your leadership in this effort.

Sincerely,

Dennis M. Walcott

headcount

New York City school workforce grows, driven by 40 percent rise in teaching assistants

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
A teaching assistant worked with a pre-K student in East Harlem in 2014.

New York City’s public-school workforce grew 8 percent over the past decade, according to a new report, driven largely by the rising number of teaching assistants who work with preschool students and students with disabilities — two populations whose numbers have risen even as overall student enrollment declined.

The education department employed about 131,200 people this June — an increase of 10,200 workers since July 2007, according to an analysis by the city’s Independent Budget Office released Tuesday. The expansion comes even as student enrollment in district-run schools fell by 1.5 percent, or some 15,300 students, during that same period, the report notes.

While the number of teachers remained basically flat during that time, the department added nearly 8,600 additional teaching assistants, or “paraprofessionals,” as they’re known within the school system — an increase of over 40 percent.

“This is a story about the use of paraprofessionals — that’s the main thing,” said Yolanda Smith, a senior IBO analyst who prepared the report.

The majority of the paraprofessionals who were added during that period work with students with disabilities. Teachers union officials attributed the increase to a citywide effort since 2012 to place more students with disabilities in classrooms alongside their general-education peers, often with the support of a paraprofessional. (An education department spokesman said students are assigned paraprofessionals based on their unique needs.)

Nearly 2,000 of the paraprofessionals hired over the past decade work in pre-kindergarten classrooms, which are required to have both an assistant and a teacher. The number of assistants spiked after 2014, when Mayor Bill de Blasio rapidly expanded the city’s pre-K program.

Full-time paraprofessionals with a high school degree earn a starting salary of around $22,000. While the number of paraprofessionals focused on special-education and preschool students grew during this period, those assigned to general-education classrooms declined by roughly 1,100.

At the same time, the ranks of other school workers expanded 22 percent during this 10-year period. Those more than 2,200 additional employees include nurses, occupational and physical therapists, and “parent coordinators,” who answer families’ questions and help organize school events.

The number of teachers, principals, and assistant principals barely budged over that period, adding just over 500 additional workers. Union officials noted that there was a teacher hiring freeze from 2009 to 2014, but said that in recent years any new hires were essentially balanced out by teachers who retired or chose to leave the system.

Education department spokesman Will Mantell said in a statement: “We’re focused on recruiting and retaining talented staff that meet the needs of New York City students and families.”

Busing Ban

As school districts push for integration, decades-old federal rule could thwart them

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
Several districts across the country want to use federal money to pay for school buses as part of their desegregation plans. A federal spending restriction could get in the way.

In Florida, officials plan to use federal money to shuttle students across vast Miami-Dade County to new science-themed magnet programs in a bid to desegregate several schools.

In South Carolina, a tiny district west of Myrtle Beach intends to spend federal funds on free busing for families who enroll at two predominantly black schools, hoping that will draw in white and Hispanic students.

And in New York, state officials want to deploy federal school-improvement money to help integrate struggling schools, believing that may be the secret to their rebirth.

But each of these fledgling integration efforts — and similar ones across the country — could be imperiled by obscure budget provisions written during the anti-busing backlash of the 1970s, which prohibit using federal funding for student transportation aimed at racial desegregation. The rules have been embedded in every education spending bill since at least 1974, as Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia pointed out in September when he tried unsuccessfully to remove the provisions from the latest appropriations bill.

The rules are “a relic of an ugly history when states and school districts across the nation resisted meaningful integration,” said Scott, the top Democrat on the House education committee, during a floor speech where he called the persistence of the rules “morally reprehensible.”

After Scott’s amendment to eliminate the provisions was blocked, advocates are now working behind the scenes to convince members of the Senate from both parties to strike the rules from the latest spending bill during negotiations. More than 40 integration advocates and experts have signed onto a letter to lawmakers calling for the anti-busing language to be removed, and members of that coalition plan to meet with lawmakers in the coming days.

Advocates are especially worried about funding for magnet programs, like those in Miami and the South Carolina district, which rely on special science or art offerings or rigorous academic courses to draw students of different races into the same school — a choice-based approach that has become the primary way districts now pursue desegregation.

This is the first year districts that receive federal magnet-school grants are allowed to spend some of that money on transportation, after Congress changed the rules as part of its education-law overhaul in 2015. Among the 32 districts that received a total of nearly $92 million in magnet grants this year, at least six plan to use some of that money for transportation, according to their applications.

Now, just as those funds are about to flow to busing — which many families insist upon before they will enroll their children in magnet schools across town — the decades-old spending restriction could cut them off, advocates warn.

That could create a major problem for districts like Miami-Dade County.

It hopes to attract students from across the district to three heavily black and Hispanic schools by launching magnet programs that focus on zoology, cybersecurity, and mobile-app development, according to its application. To pull that off, it requested $245,000 for buses next year since, as the application notes, the “most limiting factor” for many families is “the cost associated with transporting their child to the magnet school.”

The district in Lake City, South Carolina wants to pull new families from different neighborhoods into an elementary school and a middle school that suffer from sagging enrollment and intense poverty. Previous recruitment efforts that didn’t provide transportation amounted to “failed attempts,” the district said in its application.

However, if the anti-busing provisions are not removed from the next federal spending bill, they would cancel out the new rule allowing those districts to spend some of their magnet money on transportation (though districts could still use local funds to fill in the gap). As such, magnet-school representatives are pushing hard for lawmakers to remove the provisions during budget negotiations.

“We’re hoping this doesn’t see the light of day,” said John Laughner, legislative and communications manager at Magnet Schools of America, an association of magnets from across the country. He plans to discuss the issue with lawmakers next week.

Beyond magnet schools, other desegregation efforts could be undercut by the anti-busing provision, which was included in a spending bill for fiscal year 2018 that the House approved and one the Senate has yet to vote on.

At least one state — New York — listed socioeconomic and racial integration among the ways it could intervene in low-performing schools under the new federal education law. In addition, New York officials announced a grant program this week where up to 30 districts will receive federal money to develop integration plans.

Advocates fear the anti-busing rule could disrupt any of those plans that require transportation and aim to reduce racial segregation. (New York education officials said they did not want to speculate on the impact of a spending bill that hasn’t been approved.)

A Democratic Congressional aide who has studied the issue said the provision could even block federal funding for planning or public outreach around desegregation programs that involve busing, not just busing itself.

Either way, advocates say the provision could dissuade districts from using the new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, to pursue integration — even though research suggests that student achievement on tests and other measures improve when they attend less segregated schools.

“We shouldn’t have this,” said Philip Tegeler, a member of the National Coalition on School Diversity, which is leading the charge to remove the restriction. He added that the provision stemmed from mandatory desegregation busing of an earlier era: “It’s clearly an anachronism that doesn’t really fit any more with what states and districts are doing voluntarily.”

A U.S. education department spokeswoman said Secretary Betsy DeVos would be bound to enforce any funding prohibitions that Congress approves, though she noted that state and local funds are not subject to the same restrictions.

Negotiators from the House and Senate must still agree on a single spending bill, which would go before the full Congress for a vote. Until then, lawmakers have voted to temporarily extend 2017 spending levels through December. It’s possible Congress will pass another extension then, meaning a final deal — and a decision on the anti-busing language — may not arrive until early next year.

In the meantime, advocates are pressing lawmakers like Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Republican chairman of the Senate education committee who helped craft ESSA, with the argument that the anti-busing provision limits the flexibility and local control the law was meant to provide districts.

Margaret Atkinson, a spokeswoman for the senator, would not say whether he is open to removing the provision, but said he would continue working to ensure ESSA “is implemented as Congress intended.”

The anti-busing language — found in two sections of the current appropriation bills — prohibits using federal funds for transportation “to overcome racial imbalance” or “to carry out a plan of racial desegregation,” or forcing students to attend any school other than the one closest to home. (A separate education law contains a similar restriction, but ESSA exempted magnet schools from it.) The provisions emerged in the early 1970s, just after the Supreme Court ruled that busing students to schools outside their own racially isolated neighborhoods was an appropriate tool for school desegregation.

At the time, many white parents raged against what they called “forced busing.” In response, the U.S. House of Representatives passed at least one law annually from 1966 to 1977 meant to curb school integration, according to historian Jason Sokol, and in 1974 the full Congress voted in favor of an anti-busing amendment to an education bill. The restrictions in the current spending bills appear to have originated around the same time.

The attacks on busing reflect how crucial free transportation is to school desegregation, said Erica Frankenberg, a professor at Pennsylvania State University who studies segregation. Busing was included in guidelines outlining how districts should comply with desegregation requirements in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and later upheld by the Supreme Court, she pointed out.

More recently, studies have shown that non-white parents are more likely to opt into magnet schools when they provide transportation, and that magnets that don’t offer busing are more likely to enroll students of a single race, Frankenberg said. Yet, many politicians remain reluctant to endorse busing for desegregation — which may reflect a deeper ambivalence, she added.

Resistance to busing, she said, “is a very politically acceptable way to be opposed to integration.”