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

first steps

Superintendent León secures leadership team, navigates evolving relationship with board

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León at Tuesday's school board meeting.

As Newark’s new superintendent prepares for the coming academic year, the school board approved the final members of his leadership team Tuesday and began piecing together a roadmap to guide his work.

The board confirmed three assistant superintendents chosen by Superintendent Roger León: Jose Fuentes, the principal of First Avenue School in the North Ward; Sandra Rodriguez, a Hoboken principal who previously oversaw Newark Public Schools’ early childhood office; and Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School in the East Ward. They join three other assistant superintendents León selected for his team, along with a deputy superintendent, chief of staff, and several other officials.

The three assistant superintendents confirmed Tuesday had first come before the board in June, but at that time none of them secured enough votes to be approved. During last month’s meeting, the board assented to several of León’s leadership picks and to his decision to remove many people from the district’s central office, but it also blocked him from ousting several people.

This week, Board Chair Josephine Garcia declined to comment on the board’s reversal, and León did not respond to a request for comment.

What is clear is that the board and León are still navigating their relationship.

In February, the board regained local control of the district 22 years after the state seized control of the district due to poor performance and mismanagement. The return to local control put the board back in charge of setting district policy and hiring the superintendent, who previously answered only to the state. Still, the superintendent, not the board, is responsible for overseeing the district’s day-to-day operations.

During a board discussion Tuesday, Garcia hinted at that delicate balance of power.

“Now that we’re board members, we want to make sure that, of course, yes, we’re going to have input and implementation,” but that they don’t overstep their authority, she said.

Under state rules, the board is expected to develop district goals and policies, which the superintendent is responsible for acting on. But León — a former principal who spent the past decade serving as an assistant superintendent — has his own vision for the district, which he hopes to convince the board to support, he said in a recent interview on NJTV.

“It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see as appropriate,” he said.

Another matter still being ironed out by the board and superintendent is communication.

León did not notify the full board before moving to force out 31 district officials and administrators, which upset some members. And he told charter school leaders in a closed-door meeting that he plans to keep intact the single enrollment system for district and charter schools — a controversial policy the board is still reviewing.

The district has yet to make a formal announcement about the staff shake-up, including the appointment of León’s new leadership team. And when the board voted on the new assistant superintendents Tuesday, it used only the appointed officials’ initials — not their full names. However, board member Leah Owens stated the officials’ full names when casting her vote.

The full names, titles and salaries of public employees are a matter of public record under state law.

Earlier, board member Yambeli Gomez had proposed improved communication as a goal for the board.

“Not only communication within the board and with the superintendent,” she said, “but also communication with the public in a way that’s more organized.”

The board spent much of Tuesday’s meeting brainstorming priorities for the district.

Members offered a grab bag of ideas, which were written on poster paper. Under the heading “student achievement,” they listed literacy, absenteeism, civics courses, vocational programs, and teacher quality, among other topics. Under other “focus areas,” members suggested classroom materials, parent involvement, and the arts.

Before the school year begins in September, León is tasked with shaping the ideas on that poster paper into specific goals and an action plan.

After the meeting, education activist Wilhelmina Holder said she hopes the board will focus its attention on a few key priorities.

“There was too much of a laundry list,” she said.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”